Exploring the Classics: Gateways to the Past September 27 2015, 0 Comments

The Iliad. Don Quixote. The Scarlet Letter. Great Expectations. Many high school students have groaned in despair seeing these titles on their class syllabi. They are sometimes seen as challenging, and true, they can take work and perseverance. But these works possess the ability to pull readers off on adventures, not only into fictional realms and stories, but to a different time in our own history.

These are the books that have stood the test of time. While countless other works have come and gone, popular one decade and vanishing the next, these great works have themes and stories, morals and messages, that speak powerfully to readers across the ages. 

In his famed work Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes, “For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.” Books like The Pilgrim’s ProgressThe Fellowship of the RingA Christmas Carol, and The Wizard of Oz have just as much to say about life, love, loyalty, pain, and joy to today’s readers as to their original readers—and sometimes even more than their authors could have guessed.

William Shakespeare was popular in the Elizabethan, but other writers were much more revered at the time. However, throughout the ages, his plays have risen to the top as the works that most deeply and poignantly reflect the human condition and themes of betrayal, love, loss, despair, and hope. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, revered in his day, faded into the backdrop of history. But Shakespeare’s works remain today, recognized as some of the greatest words penned in the English language. Reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, and other greats raises us above the passing challenges unique to each era, connecting readers to the common struggles and triumphs—the common story—of humanity as a whole.

Thoreau continues to comment on this theme in Walden: "A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself."

“The symbol of an ancient man's thought becomes a modern man's speech,” Thoreau goes on to write. As we read the words penned by the literary greats hundreds of years before us, they become our own words and a part of our own life stories.


In the upcoming blog series, we will explore each week the challenges, rewards, and value of reading classic literature. Why do we return to these books time and time again? How can we overcome the common challenges of reading them? How can we better understand the tales and voices of our past? Join us in our journey, and dive into some of the classical greats at open-lore.com, where you can find digitally restored versions of literary classics, or Bookshare to find hundreds more.