It’s sophomore year. You’ve gotten your bearings in the college world. You’re fresh out of Comp. 2 and wondering if there is anything that you don’t know.
As far as you’re concerned, the only thing standing between you and greatness is the Western Civilization (CIV) class everyone always talks about like they’re telling a ghost story around a campfire.
Spooky, but surely not that bad.
Then comes the required books list. The terror and dread sets in.
As if the “Odyssey”and “Iliad”weren’t enough!
How much can possibly be said in dactylic hexameter?
How many more key themes can be discovered?
Does every major really need to know about the Romantic poets?
Most of us have been there and we’ve all wondered the same thing: why does this literature matter?
Classic literature is arguably the backbone to OBU’s liberal arts education. Every student is required to work their way through selections such as the “Aeneid,” “Beowulf,” “The Canterbury Tales” and even Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.”
Biology majors, theatre majors, computer design majors, CIV doesn’t differentiate.
It’s inclusive like that.
It is a grueling, year-long rite of passage. Half the struggle is just making yourself do the readings.
As a creative writing major and an avid reader, I was ecstatic to finally be introduced to all the crucial pieces of classical literature OBU promised to teach me.
But two pages into my first epic poem, I found myself doubting my love for the written word.
I was not impressed. It was despite my best efforts, but one can only read the words “swift-footed Achilles” so many times without breaking down in public.
Is this what being a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) student in high school English felt like?
Some time has passed since my sophomore year and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on those questions we all ask when confronted with literature we don’t feel is relevant, worthwhile or even that good.
Why do we still read the classics? For fun? To learn? Is it something we just… do?
The truth is that the classics don’t need us to read them.
They’re already classics. They’ve already shaped literature as we know it and solidified their own status.
We should, however, want to read them. Every rambling sentence, archaic term and repeating dialogue has played a part in the media we consume today in more intimate ways than we realize.
To read classical literature, however much we might not like it, is to better understand our present culture and experiences.
For example, if one wishes to have a complete understanding of “The Hunger Games,” one needs to have a grasp on the philosophies behind Locke and Rousseau and even the myth of Theseus.
These ideas and writings, surprisingly enough, are the foundation of the famous young adult series.
Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins herself commented on this philosophical and therefore historical background behind her series.
“I was such a huge Greek mythology geek as a kid, it’s impossible for it not to come into play in my storytelling. The connection [of the novel] to the myth of Theseus happened immediately,” Collins said in an interview with the New York times.
Without such a cultured foundation and connected themes, the famous novel would simply be another throwaway story about children fighting to the death. There’s no sense and no meaning. It’s literary anarchy.
“The Canturbury Tales” and “Frankenstein”set up the famous frame narrative crucial to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,”which then went on to revolutionize movies as a whole. And everyone knows that “The Lion King” is just “Hamlet” for children.
The point is that the truths behind literature—whatever they say about politics, emotion, society and humanity as a whole—remain the same. They remain relevant. Relevancy can never be disregarded.
As author Italo Calvino famously said, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”
Classic literature lives and breathes in itself despite what we think about it. Objectively good or not, they are classics for a reason. Their undeniable worth is obvious in how they have influenced their future.
Keep this truth in mind when it’s one in the morning and you’re staring blearily at Greek verse, or when you think skipping Erasmus is a good idea or even the next time you watch the next Hollywood blockbuster.
CIV is there to teach you how to keep an eye out and ears open because classical literature is everywhere if you just listen. And trust me — it still has a lot left to say.