Reading the Classics in the Digital Age

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a tired young girl climbs into her bed with her favorite, dog-eared copy of “Little Women,” excitedly turning to the chapter where Jo wishes she were a boy and could go fight in the war with her father. This young girl barely gets to chapter three, but she falls asleep with the beloved book beside her. Tomorrow, she will carry the book around with her like an old friend.  

This does sound much like an old fairy tale, doesn’t it? With today’s video games, iPads, smartphones, social media, computers and Netflix, the days of voracious reading seem to be long gone. In fact, a recent multi-year study by the American Psychological Association shows that high school-aged teens spend more time texting and on social media than reading. Many of the teens polled reported that they are spending four hours a day or more texting, on the Internet or on social media. Conversely, teens say that they are only reading for about 19 minutes a day, which is significantly less time than teens spent reading in the previous generation.

More time on screens means that children are growing up with a number of significant challenges, like moody behavior, less focus on academics and — perhaps especially disturbing — an overall lack of empathy for others. It’s not realistic to think that the distractions of screen devices are going to disappear, so parents and teachers are searching for ways to combat the ill effects of too much time in front of screens. One answer? Reading — especially classic works of literature — is the perfect antidote to many of the negative effects of screens, and it is an activity that can have immediate benefits.

In reading classic literature, rich in stories of compelling characters facing and surmounting difficult challenges, children will discover and explore their own humanity, and the empathy they have been lacking will be reignited. Other benefits include an expanded vocabulary, a better understanding of historical and cultural references and improved social skills. In addition, a regular diet of high-quality literature such as classic books can improve students’ writing in all subjects. Reading is also a very inexpensive pleasure, and it is something families can do together.

Contemporary authors have much to offer students today. However, reading classic literature can provide lifelong advantages. What sets classic books apart from current picks?  

•   A classic book is one that has endured the passage of time and continues to speak to modern readers.

•   It has a historical impact and furthers knowledge of a particular time, people or place.

•   It has a moral/emotional message that is often provocative, even transformative.

•   It has questions that may never be finally answered, but challenge the reader to ponder deeply.

•   Often, the complexities and subtleties of a classic work mean that a reader has a different response or understanding every time it is read, and it begs to be reread.

Of course, contemporary literature may contain some of these elements, but true classics are books that involve the reader in a great literary conversation among curious and thoughtful minds down through the years. This is a deeply meaningful relationship that today’s children deserve and need to be a part of. Literature today has only been informed by and made great because of the classics.  

The words and stories found in classics are challenging, and this is why they should be savored. They have the power to expand horizons and awaken the child to the reality of worlds very different from his own, far away or long ago. Children feel both enriched and accomplished after tackling such compelling works, which stimulate understanding and empathy that cannot be gleaned from any video game. Perhaps carrying around well-loved  books written long ago won’t be as common as it once was, but then again, old things often become new again … just like the classics.  

Westminster School provides a unique preschool-middle school education based on a classical curriculum, accelerated academics enhanced by the arts and an emphasis on personal responsibility and good character. Students enjoy small classes taught by teachers who specialize in their field.


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