3 Reasons to Read the Classics

Anna Karenina poster

By Belinda Thomson

I’m revisiting Anna Karenina right now, and loving it.

Some people struggle with it; indeed there are some long, boring passages about Russian agriculture and politics. I skip some of that stuff; you’re allowed to on your second read, I reckon.

Well, you’re always allowed to what you like – there are no rules for reading.

And pre-twentieth-century literature can be daunting, because there was quite a trend among European writers to make a political point in their novels. Now, we’re not quite so moved by questions of Russian democracy. (Although with Putin still in power, I’m sure the Russians are).

When I think about it, there are plenty of political issues covered then, that remain unresolved today. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was concerned with the corruption and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, for example; turns out we’re launching a Royal Commission on that topic.

George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda explores the issue of Zionism – the push for a Jewish homeland in Israel. I think we can all agree that’s not quite solved – just ask Hamas.

In fact, the thing that strikes me when I read the classics, is that they are timeless. And so, I’d like to make the case for you to add some to your reading list this year:

1. You realise you’re not alone – Whatever emotional turmoil, ethical dilemma or existential crisis you face, a literary hero or heroine has faced it too. When I first met Dorothea Brooke, of Middlemarch, I saw her as a kindred spirit. Anyone who has wanted to do good in the world, but not quite known how to do it, can identify with Doroethea. (Thankfully, I never considered marrying a crusty old guy as a solution). And anyone who has had one of those intense, ill-fated but utterly consuming relationships can understand Anna Karenina and the way fate seems to overtake her.

2. It gives you a treasure trove of obscure knowledge – I love knowing what ‘firedogs’ are (fireplace accoutrements, if you’re wondering). I enjoy knowing that the order in which guests entered a dining room demonstrated the social order. And what great pleasure it is to know when you would use the Russian patronymic to address a person, and when you use their title and surname. Just in case I ever face that situation, you know.

3. It makes you appreciate the present – It’s easy to forget, in the permissive times we live in, just how different women’s lives were even one or two generations ago. In a time before no-fault divorce, when women couldn’t own property or work, our lives were fundamentally different. Relationships, and the choices we made, were almost irrevocable. We died just giving birth. We were shunned for minor indiscretions. So as much as I dislike the overtly sexual, raunch culture of today, it is surely preferable to the buttoned-up Victorians. And sometimes it’s good to be reminded just what we’ve achieved, and what we need to protect.

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  1. I just started Anna Karenina last night – for the first time. Now I know some of the things I have to look forward to, besides someone throwing themselves under a train. Much as I am a Kindle fan, it’s when you get to the classics that the value of a hard copy stands out – being able to dip in and out of a previous read or old favourite and recall or re-trace bits of wisdom or information.

    • But with a Kindle, you can highlight for fave quotes for later on! I actually have both on the go – read my hard copy at the beach and in the bath, and Kindle everywhere else. Best of both worlds…

  1. June 13th, 2013

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