Literature is a priceless treasure, but it comes at a cost. I’ve always heard people say that reading great literature can expose its readers to both the highest reaches of civilization and the deepest mysteries of humanity. They’re not wrong, but such soaring praise for great literature and the inevitable exhortation to read the classics that follows often give us a burdensome sense of duty and a secret guilt at not being up to the task.
I remember the feeling of drowning I felt at reading The Iliad for the first time and not understanding a word. I hated it and hated the faceless elites that told me that I should love it if I wanted to love literature. I thought that studying literature would mean that I’d love my work, but I didn’t realize that my love would become work. It took me years to realize that it was okay to feel that way—that every passion worth pursuing is worth working for. I learned to accept my struggles with literature as part of growth instead of feeling guilty that I didn’t like all of the great literature I was reading.
Six years after my initial experience with The Iliad, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the epic much better. I’m no longer drowning, but I’m still in over my head. It’s the inevitable result of embracing something larger than myself. Too often, we approach reading with a kind of literary legalism that promises that if we enjoy The Grapes of Wrath or understand T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land we will be “well read” and have “good taste.” But if we approach literature with pride at conquering the classics instead of humility at learning from them, then we will fail every time. It doesn’t matter what level you read at or how knowledgeable you are about literature, read something difficult, something you might not even like at first. We’ve got nothing to prove but everything to learn, so let’s all read above our heads.