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So how does one go about reading such classics? Any tips? I often get distracted by the arcane language of many translations and go for a modern translation, preferably annotated. Even when the English seems pretty readable (say, Shakespeare) it's obvious I miss quite a lot in comprehension.



If you're not familiar with Greek myths, I'd start with those. Greek gods and characters are everywhere in the great books. Here's a good (and short) overview: https://www.amazon.com/Heroes-Gods-Monsters-Greek-Myths-eboo...).

Reading the books chronologically also helps. You'll understand more of the references and see how the books build on each other (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Conversation) e.g. Homer (Ilad) -> Virgil (Aeneid) -> Dante (Divine Comedy).

Modern translations are great too. You can always go back and read more "faithful" ones. Some good examples are: The Divine Comedy (https://www.amazon.com/Divine-Comedy-Dante-Alighieri/dp/0871...) and The Canterbury Tales (https://www.amazon.com/Canterbury-Tales-Retelling-Ackroyd-Cl...).

That said, the best approach may be: don't worry about it. Sure you'll miss things, but you'll get valuable insights too.


Open the first page, and continue through the rest. This might seem like a flippant answer, but I've always hated companion texts which try to read specific meanings into primary texts. I much prefer just to engage with the original, and make what I can of it. I figure I might miss some things, but I can also have my own perspective.


I understand where you're coming from, but for most people the brute force approach to reading original texts without sufficient background deprives them of many layers of understanding that makes a text rewarding to read.

And because most readers are centuries removed form the original context of the text, a direct reading also skews their interpretation significantly because most will read it through their own 21st century lens (this is how chronological bias seeps in).

Companion texts (or commentaries) might seem like crutches or training wheels because they only present one interpretive option (which could reflect a commentary author's biases).

The remedy is use more than one commentary, not necessarily to discard all commentaries. Critical thinkers do this instinctively anyway -- for instance, we click on multiple Google News links to figure out what's going on.

Commentaries help a modern reader to get to speed on the historical context and thinking that was present during that era, which in turn helps them to formulate their own (more informed) thoughts. One could try to piece together this material by inferring stuff from the text, but chances are one would be wrong about the details and one would have to consult secondary or tertiary materials anyway.

In Chaim Potok's "The Chosen" (fiction), there's a Hasidic character named Danny Saunders who was a prodigy, praised by all for his intelligence. He had an eidetic memory and great ability for analysis, but found himself stumped when reading original texts in psychology. He studies German in order to read Freud, but he gets stuck on the fact German words can be understood in many different ways, when he only wants to find the ONE way.

He has a breakthrough when he realizes that Freud's works need to be studied, not read. His epiphany led to him studying Freud using Talmudic methods (with multiple commentaries), arguing with it, etc. and finally, the text yields to him.

TLDR: when a text stumps you, try reading it with multiple commentaries.


What you are describing is what must be done when one embarks on a project of literary study.

If you just want a story, which is what almost all readers actually read for, just read it as it is, and if doesn't make any sense you are perfectly entitled to think it was a shitty book.

Frankly I think a (fiction) book must always be able to be read as-is, unsupported by outside means, else it is no longer a book.

(You hear that Greg Egan?! You wrote a really bad text book or a pretty good fiction book with pointless homework included every now and then.)


In 500 years, Star Trek will require a watcher's guide and come with a bundle of commentaries. Footnotes about 20th century culture will crawl across the bottom of the screen like subtitles. There will be a saying that, "by the time you are experienced enough to play Wesley you will be too old for him." Children will be expected to bubble in standardized Star Trek tests.


People don't usually read classics because they "just want a story".


> but I can also have my own perspective.

That seems alien to me, the notion that access to an interpretation prevents you from forming your own.


Consider: discovering context in a companion that describes the authors state of mind at time of writing.

That information may alter your perception of the primary resource.


Find an online class on the book. For example, Mythgard Academy's class on The Consolation of Philosophy: https://mythgard.org/academy/consolation-of-philosophy/

Annotated books are also good.


There are many ways to start. One way is to follow a favorite subject (for nonfiction classics). If you don't know much about a particular work, skim the book. Don't expect to or worry about getting "everything" from a book. The classics are eminently re-readable. If after 50 or 100 pages it's not "working" for you, set it aside; maybe things will go better later.

Reading groups are a great help. Even one other person to ask questions with, read passages to, and discuss--can help encourage you and add a lot of enjoyment.

Find a pace that works for you and your book. Too slow and one can lose the big picture. Too fast and one can miss key details. Some works work well when read aloud; Shakespeare's like that.


At the bottom is the Reading list .pdf . It has a suggested reading for every day of the year, at about 10 pages of reading per day. I'd just open that up and go to it. For May 27th it is:

Lessing's Courageous Stand for Toleration:

To advance freedom of thought, Lessing published an essay of one hundred paragraphs outlining the history of religion. The wrath of orthodox churchmen was hurled at his head, and Lessing was left alone to defend his daring theories.

Read from The Education of the Human Race Vol. 32, pp. 185-195


You have to be aware of the age of these books, and esp. the comments, written in 1910. The books itself did age quite properly, but the lectures and comments not so. E.g. they are in todays standard extremely racist, unscientific and religious, all over in praise of the Aryan race, the superiority of Christianism and mixed in the Jews.

E.g. Vol 51, p22: "The Germans were crude and military; the Latins were subtle and peaceful".

A modern canon would be much be better, such as we learn it in todays schools.


go for a modern translation, preferably annotated.

That's a perfectly sensible way to go, in most cases. You also don't have to start with the wankiest things just because they used to beat this stuff into 10 year olds in original. Anabasis is a lot easier than History of the Peloponnesian War




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