People now consume entertainment like never before. At the flick of a switch you can order almost any book, film, album, or TV series ever created – often at very little cost. Given this, why bother with Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky? Why slog your way through Plato and Aristotle when you could be watching the latest DVD boxset? In any case, who is to say that Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is superior to Game of Thrones, or that an epic novel like War and Peace is better than an epic film like Lawrence of Arabia?
The French philosopher Rene Descartes once wrote that reading great books was like holding a conversation with the finest minds of the past. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to assume that anyone who lived before the invention of computers and the discovery of DNA must have been a fool. C S Lewis called this 'chronological snobbery.' But just because writers like Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare lived in brutal, superstitious societies, that does not mean they have nothing to say to the 21st century. On the contrary, the fact that most of the classics were produced in cultures quite unlike yours is what makes them worth exploring.
Every culture, no matter how sophisticated or advanced, has its limitations and its blindspots – and ours is no different. Of course, language changes, and it is unquestionably harder to read Chaucer's medieval English than it is to read George Orwell's 20th century English. But read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and you will enter another world. A modern writer may set his novel in the same period, but no matter how gifted he may be, no matter how great the work he produces, he is a 21st century man. Read Chaucer and you encounter a 14th century mind, one with the weaknesses and limitations of his time – but also its strengths.
So what are these strengths? What do these heavy old classics, with their difficult, archaic language, have that a modern work does not? Let's stick with the example of Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales, about a group of pilgrims exchanging stories on the roads of medieval England, is in places ugly, crude, and shocking. But there is also an exuberant, joyful energy. For all its brutality, Chaucer's world was strangely innocent. People were comfortable and secure in their beliefs. Their world made sense. You find none of the tired cynicism characteristic of so much modern writing.
Too many people become so immersed in life's trivial worries that existence itself begins to seem trivial and dull. Great books, especially works of popular science, can be an antidote to this feeling. Above all, they can help you cultivate and deepen a sense of wonder. The best science writers have never quite lost the curiosity and wonder they felt as children, and their writing, no matter how difficult, often has a gushing enthusiasm, as if they are desperate to share their knowledge with you.
Many people assume that for something to be entertaining it must be easy. Why, they think, after a busy day in the office, should I plow my way through Proust or Stephen Hawking? That sounds like more work! And in a sense they are right – difficult books do demand time and effort. But their depths will open up new depths in you. They will work on you at a subconscious level, and you will soon find that the world seems richer and more wonderful than it did before.
The great works will also deepen and enrich your imagination. In his essay The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde even suggested that in a sense art creates the world. For example, Wilde writes, London had fog for centuries, but this was hardly noticed – or was experienced as nothing more than a dangerous obstacle. Then poets and painters showed people that such weather could be beautiful. No one who has read a work of popular science can ever again look at the stars in the same way. It is no coincidence that the science writer Richard Dawkins titled a recent book The Magic of Reality.
Another way of putting this would be to say that great books strengthen your inner world. C S Lewis also wrote that "the inside is bigger than the outside," meaning that there is no limit or boundary to your inner world – so be careful how you fill it!
Difficult books may take more time and effort, but that is because they have so much more to say. And sharing this with others can be immensely rewarding. Indeed, discussing books is one of life's great pleasures. Until relatively recently, many people would have said it was the greatest pleasure of all. In the literary 'salons' of 18th century Paris and London, the discussion of great books was considered an art form in itself, something to be worked on and perfected. You can see this in novels like Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, or the early novels of Aldous Huxley.
More generally, sharing a love of books bonds people like almost nothing else. Modern society prizes and values romantic love as the highest and greatest of relationships. But this was not always so. Many past societies have in fact prized friendship above all things; and those friendships often centered on the exchange of ideas – or rather, on the shared love of poetry, philosophy, and science.
Above all, have faith that your time and effort will be rewarded. If you would like advice on where to start, the American literature professor Harold Bloom has produced an excellent list of the books he considers the most important and valuable written over the last 3,000 years. This can be found online.