Jacques Barzun on Reading the “Classics”

Many readers will be familiar with Jacques Barzun from his monumental From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, which he completed at age 93. (Barzun died in 2012 at the ripe old age of 104!) Among his many interests was education, which he first addressed in his 1945 work The Teacher in America. The following excerpt is taken from his essay “Of What Use are the Classics?” from Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. (1987)

“Because a classic is thick and full, and because it arose out of a past situation, it is hard to read. The mental attitude and attention that are good enough for reading the newspaper and most books will not work. We read ordinary matter by running the eye over the print at a steady rate, rarely stopping to think or wonder.Barzun BeginHere

“But why, after all, learn to read differently by tackling the classics?  The answer is simple: in order to live in a wider world. Wider than what?  Wider than the one that comes through the routine of our material lives and through the paper and the factual magazines — Psychology Today, House and Garden, Sports Illustrated; wider also than friends’ and neighbors’ plans and gossip; wider especially than one’s business or profession. …The great works do not yield their cargo on demand; but if one reads them with concentration, the effort gives us possession of a vast store of vicarious (indirect) experience; we come face to face with the whole range of perception that mankind has attained and that is denied by our unavoidably artificial (manufactured) existence.

“…I have said that the classics cannot be read like a magazine article. It takes some form of compulsion to get started, and often the eager starter bogs down in difficulties. To give help, therefore, and to apply the steady pressure, coaching is necessary. Hence the classics must be met and conquered at latest in college.
At latest: the really appropriate time would be the last two years of high school, when the onset of maturing stirs feelings and thoughts about the meaning of life and the nature of society. Our obtuse (slow-witted) educational experts would be astonished to see how passionately a group of perfectly average fifteen-year-olds can be brought to discuss Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ or the ‘Confessions of St. Augustine.’  But the opportunity is missed, and college offers the last chance of initiating the habit of reading and enjoying solid books.”


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