“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty.” C. S. Lewis
How does a person really grow in wisdom and virtue by reading a classic? The answer to this question determines our motivation to read classics. In a generation that is motivated primarily by the practical utility of education, the answer to this question becomes paramount. For most people, the reason for reading classics goes something like this: By reading classics, we know more about the world, and we speak and write better. And because we communicate better and become more influential, we become more successful people in the world.
That is honestly what many well-meaning, even Christian parents believe. For their children. And even for themselves. But whether this reason is sufficient is altogether questionable. In reality, it fails miserably. Just ask parents who have this reason for reading classics if they read classics on a regular basis. I don’t know a single parent who reads classics because they think it makes them better communicators and more successful people in the world.
Not that being a better communicator and being successful will not happen when we read classics. But as reasons for reading, they are not powerful enough motivators. Reading classics feeds our soul, stirs our imagination, provides us with a new vision of a good life, and even transforms us into the great characters that we read about.
And that is why it is worth reading classics over and over again, by ourselves, and with our children. Because we grow, in a most meaningful and lasting way. We become more human. More humbled.
Typically, great classics provide us with a window into a whole new way of looking at life, thinking about the same mundane things from a fresh new perspective. When we read some great lines in a book, we should wonder, “What perspective in life motivates this author to write this way?” Ultimately, explicitly or implicitly, these authors are motivated by the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. It is God’s redemptive power that motivates their hopeful perspective in life.
So, we ought to be transformed by the eternal perspective of the author. But that transformative experience cannot be separated from the particular turn of phrases with which authors express their thoughts. As Christians, we believe that words are a unique gift of God to mankind. As limited as we might think a human language is, words have the capacity to convey heavenly realities, in a fleshly form, just as Christ as God himself took on our weak human flesh.
As an example, here is a paragraph from a great children’s classic, The Wind in the Willow, by Kenneth Grahame. He describes a scene of a Mole discovering a river for the first time in his life.
He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.
Have you ever imagined experiencing a river like this? Perhaps when God made rivers, with all its fertility, life-giving power, and grace, we are supposed to experience it this way. What is keeping us from experiencing God’s truth, goodness, and beauty in a river like this? By re-reading The Wind in the Willow, by chewing on these delicious words and meditating upon them, we might inherit the eternal perspective of the author.