The Benefits of Reading Back in Time

Book with magic rainbow light flowing in a lined mist Stock image courtesy of stock.adobe.come

Gabriel Gonzalez

Student Life Editor

When someone wants to know why the present is the present, look to the past. To understand a current situation, one has to realize the events and factors that led to it.

From a blessing to be thankful for to a problem that needs solving, this advice applies to everything. If you can’t determine the root of an issue, how are you supposed to solve it? If you can’t determine what led to a positive outcome, how can you ensure that it repeats? Without such an outlook, we run the risk of repeating bad behaviors and forgetting the good ones. As George Santayana, renowned writer and philosopher, said: “Those who who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But you don’t have to get your perspective wholly from historical texts or memoirs or biographies; you can also get it from fiction.

And by fiction, I mean the classics, mainly; pieces of literature that have “stood the test of time.” These are stories not meant to necessarily excite, but to offer insights into the human experience.

And it’s no surprise that many of these stories contain social commentary, often hidden beneath other aspects the plot. Novels like My Antonia by Willa Cather and Washington Square by Henry James have feminist elements running beneath the main plot. I don’t mean that these elements are subtle (though Washington Square is a little more discrete in its messaging). I mean that they aren’t overt. These aren’t manifestos, after all. Nor are they political theory, though some may have political elements or critiques. Classics are focused on truth. They are the result of observations, each filtered through layers of bias and logic unique to each writer. To be even more specific, “classics” are the writer’s “truth.” They reflect each writer’s view of the human experience, their conclusion on political and societal norms and their beliefs on human nature. And what separates these writers and these works from the hundreds of thousands of others is one thing: resonance.

Time and time again, these works are revisited, reanalyzed, discussed, even argued over. Why? Because these works reach depths of complexity timeless in variety, even if some of the prose or action may seem dated in our present bias. Even now, they speak to us and, with the universal themes and covert criticisms we find ourselves repeating in today’s culture, that isn’t a surprising development. Morality, love, life and death are all eloquently laid out on the page, whether read in 1913 or 2023.

That isn’t to say that the modern eye finds it legible. My experience reading Moby-Dick by Herman Melville was a slog to say the least. It was filled with sailor slang from a bygone age and passages of great length that seem (the word is italicized for a reason) to have nothing to do with the plot or the characters. The multi-page passage on how the color white is associated with evil and malice springs to mind.

But you can work through it, and if you do you’ll be sure to add a few vocabulary words to your repertoire and…well…an ego boost. It’s always embarrassing to admit, but reading these long, difficult books does give one a sense of pride, a feeling of accomplishment and a somewhat pretentious air.

Now, how does this relate to you as a student? Odds are you will be required to read many of these classics anyway. Not Moby-Dick necessarily, but many novels that fall under the classification of “classic.” Reading something ahead of time could save you a good chunk of the class, with the only work left being whatever essay your professor assigns. It isn’t just about avoiding pressure either, as reading these works are fantastic for expanding your vocabulary and improving on your ability to write formally. There’s a piece of writing advice I always follow: Read the best books and the worst, as each has merit. The classics would be leaning on the best, and a couple of solid readings are enough to cement, at the very least, a sense of grammar and sentence structure that any professor would be happy with. Beyond modeling writing, these novels can also increase your analytical and critical thinking skills, perfect for any dry textbook.

If you can extract the benefits waiting in a line of classics, you’ve already set yourself up for a success. So, before you look up a YouTube video on how to format a paragraph, structure a sentence, or improve your grammar, there’s a solution that may take more effort, but is definitely worth it.

Please, let me know what you’re reading below in the comments.