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Should a writer read the classics?

Reading is such an important part of being a writer that I once simply assumed that anyone who took up the pen–keyboard today–did so in response to an engagement with an author or a book. But that’s simply not the case anymore. Reading does not seem to be a necessary skill nor is the idea that a well-read mind makes up a large part of the package that is a writer. Where are you? Are you a reader who writes in response to a life of reading? Or are you a writer who is in search of a reader but is not one yourself? I’ve always thought the last to be a bit peculiar.

Are we allowing the conversation to die?

I grew up in the day when everyone cut their teeth on the classics–and by classics I mean what is commonly called the Western Canon. But I’m not here argue the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Western Canon. Classics today come in all styles, all flavors, and are written for all times. Sometimes I think we suffer from too many choices and that leads us to choose none. It’s not hard to start reading. Cast about for a topic, an age, and a genre and begin.

Enter the world of classic books

For a writer, reading  is pretty much like breathing. I simply can’t imagine what it would be like to have not delved into a wide range of work and read the words, examined the thoughts, and explored the literary landscapes of other writers. But I know from my time teaching and mentoring that it happens–a lot. I also know that many people today don’t see value in reading either as a pastime or as a skill to be learned.

It’s not necessary to dig deep into the past, even 20-3o years ago, to see what other writers might offer–let alone discover what the minds of Shakespeare, Henry James, William Faulkner, Jane Austin, Mary Shelley or others might share. Books have a lot to offer. Writers have much more to share. If reading the classics can make a difference for a reader, how much more will it benefit a writer? The classics remain how-to books even for today’s writers.

More importantly the classics are the record of a rather lengthy conversation, one that has gone on among writers and their readers for centuries. Ideas are expanded, alternate views are presented, references are layered in book after book, age by age. Despite the eruption of Twitter and the 146-character responses, even today there are writers who continue the conversation with Shakespeare between the pages of their books.

The Classics Club – A self-made map to reading recovery

The Classics Club book reading challengeJillian over at A Room of One’s Own came up with the idea for The Classics Club at the right time for me. She wants to encourage others to read and blog about the classics. You do not have to be a writer or even an avid reader. Her idea is for each person to commit to reading 50 books in 5 years. Ten books a year and the books are entirely up to you. Even the definition of what is a classic book is left up to the individual. You don’t get much freer than that.

Create your list of 50 books, announce your participation and share your list, then begin. Once a book has been read, share your opinion and provide a review on your personal blog or on Amazon, GoodReads, LibraryThing or any other venue. What is wanted and desired is an engagement with others about the book and the experience of reading the classics. The criteria for what makes up a review is up to you.

My Classics Club Reading Plan: 50 classics in 5 years

Classics TBR

So, yes, I’m in. I’ve spent the last few weeks pulling books of shelves and trolling through the lists and recommendations of others to come up with my preliminary list. It is definitely eclectic and pretty much elastic. Shakespeare is in. St Augustine is in. Even Machiavelli is in. (Has anyone really read his work or is just chatter handed down through the ages?) But I’ve also included the works writers from Shirley Jackson,  Flannery O’Connor, and Ray Bradbury. Time is no barrier as the 2010 Viet Nam book Matterhorn is in–30 years in the making, many hail it as a classic already. I hope you’ll take the time to scan the list and let me know what you think.

  • My 5 year reading plan is a minimum of 50 books to be read by May 31, 2017.
  • My list currently contains 79 books in the Old/New Classics list, 12 books in Collections (short story and essay), and 4 books in the On Writing section (yes, it will grow).
  • I expect my list to expand and contract over the days, months, and years based on my reading, my interests, and my life’s course.
  • In the end my mind will be well-fed and, I hope, eager for more.
  • The list? Here’s my  list of 50+ Classics to read.

My reward will be the joy of having met so many skilled and acclaimed writers through the pages of books that have, over time, risen to the top. I expect to be pushed, shoved, lured, cajoled, and yes, even entertained. A tangible reward might be that of a literary trip to visit the haunts of some of the writers and roam through the physical landscapes that provided so much mulch for their literary landscapes. What about you?

Are you ready to make your own journey into the classics? Share your thoughts below.

Find my detailed list and more under the Projects tab or click here on My Classics Club.

My The Classics Club shelf:
Vikk Simmons's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (the-classics-club shelf)


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  • http://jillianreadsbooks2.wordpress.com/ Jillian

    I’m very excited you’ve joined us, Vikk, and I love what you say here, about the importance of READING as a writer, and using your work to speak back to the great conversation. That’s EXACTLY why I finally started reading in 2010. I look forward to your thoughts on all the books you’ve selected. :-) x

  • Vikk Simmons

    Thanks for the gracious and enthusiastic welcome, Jillian. I confess, I do think reading is a major component in a writer’s makeup or at least it should be. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog contributions to the conversation about great books the last several years. This should be fun. :)

  • http://website-in-a-weekend.net/ Dave Doolin

    Most people blather on about The Prince (usually without having read it); I prefer Machiavelli’s Discourses.

  • Anonymous

    This is an interesting post.  I have often deliberated on this.  I have noticed the number of writers who comment on my classics post.  Some have never heard of Toni Morrison, Tolstoy, The Color Purple, etc.  I assume that writers would rather spend their time writing rather than reading, but I also felt that the natural progression is for one to love the written word, read it and then feel the need to write.