Advice That May Be Hurting Your Ability to Read & Enjoy the Classics

I feel like over the years I’ve encountered several scholars and intellectuals who, when asked about how to approach the classics, tell people to just go off and read them, without any supplementary resources. 

It’s a pretty romantic notion — that just about anyone can pick up Homer and come away with profound insights into life and war and develop a keen appreciation of the Iliad’s literary brilliance and historical significance. 

But, if the majority of readers are anything like me, they’ll just give up halfway through with little more than a few lines that sounded pretty, a disdain for Achilles, and a bit of shame for not having completed the book or understanding why people bother with it.  

I wonder how the experience would’ve been different had I read an introduction. Or maybe watched a lecture on the book. Or read even just an article telling me what to pay attention to in the work. 

I think I would’ve finished it. 

In reality, this advice to just read the classics is disingenuous and unhelpful, especially when we’re talking about difficult works of philosophy or ancient literature that are often inaccessible to the layperson. 

The scholars giving the advice are telling you to do the opposite of what they did to learn about these great books. 

In college and graduate school, they didn’t just read The Republic or Moby Dick and call it a day. They had to read lots of secondary literature, not to mention write some of their own. 

They probably read six papers on six aspects of The Republic and then read it. 

And for good reason. 

Benefits of Reading Secondary Literature

This process of reading what other creative and erudite readers have to say about the classic (how they interpret it, where the important parts are, its historical context) helps the student both understand and appreciate the text on a deeper level, while also teaching them by example how to critically read and interpret dense classics on their own. 

So when a scholar says to just read the book and forget analyses or papers or books about the book, I wouldn’t be so quick to listen. 

It’s tempting to, since it sounds like the easiest path to self-education. I spent the first few years of my serious reading doing exactly this, and I think it resulted in a lot of lost knowledge and gaps. 

The validity of the advice depends of course. Sometimes you really can just read the classic and get a ton out of it. 

For example, David Copperfield or most of Plato’s Dialogues are classics I can appreciate and think about in interesting ways without much secondary literature. 

But give me something like Thus Spoke Zarathustra and you better believe I’ll have a hard time really figuring out the main points and identifying the passages I should closely read. 

Maybe I’ll draw some connections to my life, but I doubt when someone asks me what the work was about I’ll be able to confidently answer in an articulate, organized manner. 

Even if I did manage to get the meaning, I’ll probably doubt myself and thus keep my explanation simple and shallow.  

A reason I’ve heard cited for reading the classic on its own is that you’ll be able to make your own meaning. You won’t be overly influenced by what other people have to say about the author’s intentions and arguments. You’ll get it straight from the thinker themself. 

I think this is a good point, and I think you should strive to connect the work with your own life and interpret it in your own way. And you should always be skeptical of other peoples’ interpretations and defer to the author’s intention. 

But, I also believe that maintaining your own original understanding of the work is possible while reading secondary literature. Reading the introduction won’t screw up your meaning-making apparatus, won’t convert you into a communist who now can only read the book like a communist would, provided, of course, that you read it critically. 

You can have both — originality and support — and, honestly, your own ideas about the book will probably be enhanced from having interacted with other thoughts about the book. 

Why’s that? 

For starters, it becomes a lot easier to write about what you’re reading when you have a critical vocabulary for thinking about it. 

How are you going to call out a good example of synecdoche without knowing what that is? How can you ponder a circular argument in a work of philosophy if that means nothing to you? 

An Example From my Own Studies

Just the other day while reading Nietzsche I came across the phrase “synthetic a priori judgment” and instead of skipping over it and assuming I got it like I used to I actually flipped to the back of the book and got the editor’s explanation of what he means. 

I won’t bore you with the definition, but I will say that the clarification that when Nietzsche says judgment he means proposition was helpful to my understanding. 

You Gain a Critical Vocabulary  

The best way to learn this critical language that you can then use to think about the classics you read, one day impressively on your own, without any training wheels, is to read the work of professionals who have mastered it. 

You read an essay on Don Quixote and all of a sudden you have all these new ways of thinking about literature that you can apply to Don Quixote as well as other classic novels. 

Aside from improving your critical vocabulary, the secondary works are also just going to help you understand why the work is so important and so great. In other words, why we should spend time reading it. 

This is important for pushing through hard books. Just reading it because it was on a list isn’t enough to motivate you. Good articles and reviews will inform you as to what you’ll get out of the reading, how it will intellectually shape you for the better, or why it’ll be a pleasing experience.  

Your Understanding of the Classic Text Improves 

Secondary literature also gives you a frame on which you can hang new knowledge, especially introductions. 

Knowledge sticks to knowledge you already have:

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.” — Elon Musk

For example, I read the introduction to Beyond Good and Evil and now know some of Nietzsche’s key ideas, and now I’m more likely to spot and retain the argumentative passages that are related to these ideas. 

In a way, I’ve been given a map of the knowledge contained in the book. 

Yes, the scholar’s interpretation could be a bit off, a bit biased, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here saying it’s better to trust a professor in the introduction to a Penguin Classic more than my own first guess about what the book is about. 

Plus, I can read other scholarly writings later and compare their ideas of the meaning or importance of the work. 

If you’re really scared about being incapable of thinking about the book in your own words, do what I do sometimes when reading a classic novel. 

After finishing the novel, I’ll write a quick summary review before I go and read a scholarly article or book review of the work, thus solidifying a foundational opinion that can be swayed, but that is still based on my own thoughts. That should alleviate your worries. 

Why do Well-Meaning People Give This Advice in the First Place?

With all this in mind, why is it that so many PhDs tell us to just read the great book and think about it on our own? Is it because they disliked the rigor of this education? 


But then why did they become scholars in the humanities, where part of their job is to continue writing about and reading about great works. 

Maybe it’s that they’re worried that autodidacts will be overburdened by all this reading and just give up entirely. 

“What do you mean I have to read not only The Social Contract but also all this other stuff about it? I’m out — I’m gonna go rewatch Breaking Bad.” 

If that’s the case, I’d have to argue that they’re accidentally causing fewer would-be thinkers to stay the course. 


Because people get discouraged if they don’t understand something. 

And thinking about it harder usually won’t fix the incomprehension. Beginners need some help, and secondary literature, including SparkNotes, is exactly that. It can clear things up, and make reading classics more fun. 

Whatever the reasons for this advice, I do know that since I moved away from the pure reading of classics and started getting help I’ve improved intellectually, and my understanding and retention of these great books has grown significantly. Not to mention my ability to write and talk about them.

I haven’t lost the ability to think for myself yet. I haven’t lost the love of classics. In fact, it grows, as is generally true in any subject, for the more we understand something, the more we can appreciate it. 

Ecology makes nature walks more interesting. A well-done lecture on a great epic does much the same, provided you don’t hate literary analyses (which I did hate in school but have now come to love). 

Reading Secondary Sources & Getting Help Isn’t Cheating (Far From it)

I’m not sure why I felt guilty to read an analysis on say the Iliad. It felt like I was cheating and not doing the intellectual work by myself, but this is ludicrous, and I’m done feeling that way. 

Really what kickstarted this slight rant was an episode of Cal Newport’s podcast where he talked about how to live a more intellectual life. 

He recommended pairing classic works of literature and philosophy with 1-2 pieces of secondary literature. 

For example, if you’re reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, you’d likely learn more from it if you were to first read two books about Beyond Good and Evil, or about Nietzche himself, or about its place in the intellectual tradition. 

How I’m Including Secondary Literature in My Self-Studies

In studying Nietzsche in a DIY course, I first read the introduction. Then I read an article online about the structure and key points in the text. 

Now I’m reading the actual book. 

Afterwards, I plan on reading a scholarly article online or SparkNotes, and maybe grabbing a book if I really loved the book and want to understand it more. Then maybe later I’ll read it again, this time more carefully with a sharper eye. 

It seems so obvious! I’m not sure why I neglected it so long. Universities can be dumb but one thing they still hopefully know how to do is to teach a humanities student about a classic book. 

So I figure I’ll listen to Cal. I’ll set my ego aside and tell it to shut up when it says “If we don’t understand all of this on our own we’ve failed!” 

And I’ll use the studying technique scholars and autodidacts have been using for years to better comprehend the classics they’re reading. 

I’ll get help from people who have read it better than me. So obvious! 

I’ll report back on how it’s working, but so far I’m loving it and feel stupid for trying to go it entirely alone before. 


After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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