Read What? Taking on the Classics

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Read What? Taking on the Classics

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Poignant...magnificent...majestic as the Grand Canyon...brutally compelling...

The back cover is plastered with delirious praise from a group of fawning admirers. The picture on the front is somehow ugly, depressing and boring at the same time. The pages have a faint odor of mildew. Yep, you can be pretty sure you're holding a CLASSIC!

You twitch and grimace, feeling a sudden hairball at the back of your throat. Your teacher said it was time to read something "a little gritty and mature." You say it's time to pull out the CliffsNotes!

You've heard a little about this book, and not only does it sound like a terminal case of the yawns, but the morality sounds terrible too. What would Jesus read? Well, you're pretty sure He'd have overturned the writing desks of Hemingway, Morrison, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hawthorne and all those other writers you're being asked to analyze. So there's no reason to actually read them, right?

With all your might!

Hold your horses! I agree, it sure does seem that "highly acclaimed" and "offensive" go together. All through high school, one of my classmates produced sanitized editions of our class novels by tearing out any page that bothered his conscience—and some of those books got awfully thin. But I would suggest that much of the time, reading them is still the best idea. It's clearly the better choice if you want a good grade, but beyond that, tackling a book that -challenges the way you look at the world can really make you stronger!

God tells us through Solomon, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). "But my teacher's hand found this for me!" you protest. "I thought the scripture was about the things I choose to do." Certainly. But how much time do you really get to spend pursuing your hobbies?

A key to making your day-to-day life fulfilling is to seek to grow from everything you do. A good way to make sense of this is to imagine you are trying to get more exercise but don't have any time to run or go to the gym. You would probably start looking at your routine very differently—you would try to use your creativity to make shoveling snow, weeding the garden and walking to your next class opportunities to get a good workout.

Similarly, don't let the time you spend on schoolwork just spiral down the drain; make it count toward your most important life goals! Look at it this way: When you read the classics, you are mentally sparring with some of the greatest minds in history. If you want to learn to explain and fight for your beliefs, here's a chance to expand your knowledge and test yourself. Ready?

Set goals!

We don't usually plan to grow from our English assignments. We either sit back passively and expect to absorb whatever wisdom might be found in the literature, or we seek to avoid learning at all! The very idea of setting goals for your reading may seem a bit ridiculous, but it will help give your work purpose and direction. After you've paged through the book a bit, take a few seconds to write down what you want to learn. Add to this list as you get deeper into the book.

For instance, before I read The Scarlet Letter, I wanted to learn what my classmates and Hawthorne thought about sin and what deserves punishment. Later, the book pushed me to investigate how we should confess our sins and the difference between penance and repentance.

One of my goals in reading Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury was to increase my vocabulary. I made a point of looking up the definitions of words I didn't know and writing them down. It really paid off on the vocabulary portion of my college entrance exam!

Where are they coming from?

If the author is trying to get inside your head—turn the tables and get inside his or hers! Do a little research on the author's life and other books. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda lived one nonstop party that made them utterly miserable. Could this explain some of the tone of The Great Gatsby?

What's the author's philosophy? Don't let yourself be indoctrinated (Colossians 2:8). Analyze the way he or she looks at the world and compare it to what God says in the Bible on these questions and others you may think of:

• Is there a God? What is He like? (1 John 4:8)

• Why is there suffering? (Luke 13:1-3)

• Are people basically good at heart? (Jeremiah 17:9)

• Where do you find truth? (2 Timothy 3:15-16)

• Is there one right way of life? (Proverbs 14:12; Deuteronomy 10:12-13)

• What is the meaning of life … if it has one? (Hebrews 2:6-8; 1 John 3:1-2)

(If you're interested in researching these questions further, check out the free booklets Life's Ultimate Question: Does God Exist?; Why Does God Allow Suffering?; The Ten Commandments; Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion and What Is Your Destiny?)

It's often helpful to have some labels to attach to the author's worldview. Is it humanism (maintaining that people are inherently good, able to solve the world's problems through reason)? Nihilism (denying life has any meaning except what we individually give it)? Deism (presenting a God who, after creation, never intervenes)? Check out a quick summary of some of the philosophies you might encounter in the article "How Do You Think?" from the April-June 2005 issue of Vertical Thought.

Relevance to biblical truth

Even the apostle Paul was familiar with writings of the pagan Roman culture around him—and he was able to make use of what he learned of it in conjunction with spiritual understanding from Scripture (see Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12).

I was in the middle of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations when I ran across this very applicable proverb: "An inheritance gained hastily at the beginning will not be blessed at the end" (Proverbs 20:21). I found an excellent summary of William Golding's Lord of the Flies in James 4:1: "Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?" Often a book you've read can give you new eyes to see the depth and truth of a Bible verse.


Take in the beauty of the prose itself! Paul tells us to ponder whatever things are lovely (Philippians 4:8). Allow yourself to appreciate the powerful, the poignant and the funny things that the author writes. Don't cheat yourself by just reading a summary! Who knows? You might actually like the book!

In the end, all this work will help you build a stronger foundation of understanding and get a better grade on your English paper too. Happy reading! VT