One-Minute Book Reviews

April 27, 2008

Why Read the Classics? (Quote of the Day / Michael Dirda)

Why is it important to read the classics? Michael Dirda, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism as a staff critic for the Washington Post, responds in his Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books (Norton, 2005):

“People sometimes ask teachers or critics, ‘Which books should I read to become educated?’ The short answer is either ‘As many as you can’ or ‘A small handful that you study to pieces.’ But a better question might be this one: ‘Which books should I read first?’

“The answer to that is ‘The great patterning works of world literature and culture, the poems and stories that have shaped civilization.’

“Without a knowledge of the Greek myths, the Bible, ancient history, the world’s folktales and fairy tales, one can never fully understand the visual arts, most opera, and half the literature of later ages. Homer tells us about Ulysses in The Odyssey; then Dante, Tennyson, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty add to, enrich, and subvert that story in great works of their own. The classics are important not because they are old but because they are always being renewed.”

Michael Dirda’s most recent book is Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007).

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Excellent quote…brilliant. Makes me want to start emailing it to every high school Lit teacher in the U.S.!

    Comment by ggelliott — April 27, 2008 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks, GG. This quote is typical of Michael Dirda. Some critics have a few great quotes in them … he seems have an infinite supply.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 27, 2008 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  3. And how can we escape from the never-ending contempt of Postmodern view towards Classics? I heard a late scholar advising not to read Classics anymore!

    Comment by ourclass82 — April 27, 2008 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

  4. Ouch. I haven’t heard any scholars saying anything that outrageous, but I’ve heard close to it. What a shame …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 27, 2008 @ 4:54 pm | Reply

  5. Classics? Help me picture a definition of classics. I understand that is a loaded question. I am currently reading The Old Man and The Sea….My first Hemingway. Is this a classic?

    Comment by isualum — May 1, 2008 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

  6. Good question. People do define “classics” differently.

    I might define a classic as book with literary merit that has been recognized for more than one generation. (The more generations recognize it, the more likely it is to be a classic.) So I would absolutely consider “The Old Man and the Sea” a classic.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 1, 2008 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

  7. I think that is a great way to define it…Thanks

    Comment by isualum — May 1, 2008 @ 5:31 pm | Reply

  8. Reblogged this on UNCANNY OR CANNY.

    Comment by songyihan — May 13, 2013 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

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