Some will have you believe that the classics are overrated or, worse, irrelevant. It's true that life is dramatically different in the 21st century than it was when most literary tours de force were written.
Descartes thought, and therefore was, but does he have any wisdom to offer on who you should friend on Facebook? Poe's raven croaked 'nevermore,' but does his poem of love lost resonate in an era when breakups are quickly followed by online searches for new mates? Shakespeare was quick witted, but how appealing is iambic pentameter, really, when today we communicate via text or tweet?
Wondering about the relevance of books from decades or centuries ago is a fair question. But there are some areas in which classics can serve as reminders of important (if clichéd) lessons about life.
Living well is the best revenge.
One of the best-known books in literature, Moby Dick is a warning against obsessive, monomaniacal behavior if ever there was one. And at the root of this warning is a message about the potential downside of seeking revenge. Ahab, captain of the Pequod, endeavors to find and kill Moby Dick, a great white whale that took his leg on an earlier voyage. Crewmember Ishmael narrates as a series of disasters accompanies Ahab's mission to exact revenge. Even Starbuck, the ship's first mate, cannot dissuade his captain from urging the Pequod forth toward ruin.
Anyone who's read Herman Melville's classic knows there are a number of truisms confirmed in the book: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. There's no place like home. You sleep in the bed you make. All true, but that regarding the folly of revenge is perhaps one of the more oft-neglected insights. Rather than flame that person who crossed your path, it might just be best to simply move on.
A bad conscience has a very good memory.
You don't have to tell this to Raskolnikov, the main character in Crime and Punishment. The down-and-out student, after rationalizing on the inherent evilness of a pawnbroker, decides he shall steal her riches. He also happens to kill her and another person so that his crime might go unreported. The remainder of the book features Raskolnikov feverishly wandering the streets of St. Petersburg in the fear that he will be found out. His anguish becomes so great that he eventually confesses to his crimes.
Crime doesn't pay. Poverty is the mother of crime. Thou shalt not kill. These may be a few of the more obvious (and macabre) lessons of Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic novel. But the book's longest lasting impact is felt in how it renders the impact negative actions can have on our psychology. Let's all be good, then and avoid anything that might yield a guilty conscience.
Get away from it all for a while.
Feeling in a rut? Like societal expectations and machinations constantly surround and impinge on your individuality, creativity and joi de vivre? According to Henry David Thoreau in Walden, you might do well to build a cabin in woods. There, like he did for two years, you can live completely independently with only squirrels, loons and woodchucks as your neighbors. Like him, you might tend to a beanfield, read for days on end and meditate on the finer aspects of Transcendentalism.
Okay, the idea of taking up residence in a Massachusetts wood is pretty impractical for most of us. But Thoreau's philosophical classic does offer ruminations that a 21st century soul can take to heart. With frenzied schedules and gadgets constantly chirping interruptions, our lives can begin to feel crazed. It doesn't hurt to remember that taking a relaxing walk or getting some fresh air sans smart phone can help bring us to a more peaceful state. Walden is full of sentiments like this meant to help us avoid leading lives of 'quiet desperation.'
Check back tomorrow for links to where you can find these and other classics online for free.