By Emma Hackett, Staff Writer
As smart and promising as the millennial generation is, we do face a potentially serious problem - we have forgotten how to read. I don’t mean that literally, of course - we are one of the most literate generations out there - but the art of reading takes a lot more than the ability to understand written words. Being a reader carries with it an element of appreciation for the great works of the past, which will thereby facilitate an easier evaluation of modernity. There are two main dangers which go along with the loss of the love of classic literature:
Warp speed ahead
The speed of our communication, our unprecedented technological advances, our wholehearted embrace of new, young adult literature, and other current popular trends, while often awesome (and certainly an integral part of modern life) also present the risk that we as a generation will become isolated from our past and live in a cultural and historical vacuum. If modern trends are pursued to the exclusion of more classical approaches, we risk losing our heritage and continuity with the past, which is perhaps our greatest ally when it comes to forming a solid future - and ensuring a great future is definitely something that millennials are passionate about.
Free your mind
Oftentimes, we underestimate the dramatic power of the imagination. Millennials are definitely some of the most imaginative and creative people on the planet, but our imaginations are, unfortunately, losing their potency. However, there is nothing better for sharpening and harnessing the power of the imagination than getting lost in a good book, and that is a skill that will serve millennials well, both in their careers and throughout their lives.
Since our generation has the biggest impact on the future, we need to be responsible stewards of the heritage which we have been handed so as to not repeat the mistakes of the past, or lose sight of the advances which we’ve made and the wisdom we’ve attained. Professor Mitchell Kalpaga, in his book The Virtues We Need Again: 21 Lessons from the Great Books of the West, says, "The human mind hungers for truth and needs the wisdom these books offer - wholesome food and powerful medicine that combat a multitude of problems." We need to reconnect with classics of the past - works which will inspire us, enlighten us, and motivate us to take action.
The books I include here are ones which expose readers to a variety of cultural and historical contexts, while containing universal themes which millennials will find applicable in their daily lives. So, if you think of a great one that I haven’t included (and there are many), please don’t take it personally. Ok, end of disclaimer.
1. ROMEO AND JULIET - William Shakespeare
Let’s be honest - everyone acts like they’ve read this play, probably because everyone feels like they know this story. And, in a way, they’re right - every tale of “star-crossed lovers”, from Titanic to West Side Story to Downton Abbey, can find its origin here (which is just one piece of evidence proving the deep and profound influence which Shakespeare's works have had on modern culture and consciousness).
2. LES MISERABLES - Victor Hugo
There is no doubt that Les Miserables occupies a solid place in popular consciousness, due largely (if not exclusively) to the wildly popular Broadway, West End, and now Hollywood musical of the same name. The story of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Eponine, Marius and Cosette, the scheming Thenardiers, and the brave boys of the Revolution is well known to many. It’s undoubtedly a daunting work - almost 3,000 pages long - but the themes of redemption, self-sacrifice, and the willingness to die for love of another, or for a cause which one believes to be right, make this colossal novel worth the read.
Not to mention, Hugo’s character and location descriptions are second to none in terms of depth and detail, and you’ll get definite brownie points with your theatrically minded friends by being the only one in the group who knows what Eponine actually looked like.
3. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT - Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoyevsky’s classic is both an ode to Mother Russia, and a fascinating psychological portrait which far transcends limitations of nationality or time period. Raskolnikov is one of the most fasceted characters in literary history, and Dostoyevsky proves his consummate skill as an artist by drawing us completely into the inner workings of his main character’s mind. The themes of right and wrong, sin and redemption, the necessity of repentance and the damage of evil actions are explored from all angles, and combine to create a fascinating tapestry of human nature which is highly readable, and very thought-provoking.
4. ANIMAL FARM - George Orwell
This brief but fascinating story, dramatizing the ideals and pitfalls of Marxism analogously through the relations between several animals living on the same farm, is significant for the cultural influence it had as a social commentary of the time, and for the effects which it is still having on our collective political and social consciousness. It will probably leave you thinking about it long after you’ve turned the last page.
5. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED - Evelyn Waugh
Simultaneously an ode to a period in decline and a celebration of new beginnings, this great British novel paints a stunning portrait of the British empire’s opulence in the period preceding World War II. (Downton fans, take note.) Aside from its value as a sociological commentary, however, the novel is also engrossing as a character study of the soul of man, and his need for, or ultimate rejection of, God, along with the consequences of each choice. With such compelling and universal themes, it’s no wonder that it is listed as one of the 100 Best Books of world literature.
There are few things more truly liberating, or transformative, as a good book; and, by taking to heart the wisdom of the past found in yesterday's greatest literature, millennials can not only enrich the present, but also, protect the future.