Why Read the Classics? 9 Mental Superpowers I’ve Gained From Reading Great Books

A lot of people ask me why they should read the classics. 

They wonder what it will actually do for them. 

They wonder if it’s a waste of time. 

And they’re often unsatisfied with the answers most people have given them — for example, “You’ll become more empathetic!” — which is nice and all but doesn’t really inspire anyone to run to the bookstore. 

In an attempt to give you practical reasons for reading these great works of literature and philosophy, I’ll share nine cognitive benefits I’ve noticed from 4 years of obsessively reading them.

Hopefully these reasons will inspire you to pick up Dickens, Morrison, Tolstoy, Locke, or whichever writer is tickling your curiosity from the great beyond. 

You Become More Observant of the World Around You

I wrote in my article 3 underrated benefits of reading great literature that a Thoreau essay about an ant war he witnessed made me see a groundhog fighting off my fiance’s dog in a more heroic light. 

Sometimes the great writer’s vision of the world is so powerful, and so well presented, that you can’t help but see the world like they do. 

You know how people sometimes compliment writers by saying they are very observant? 

This means they see things that escape the attention of the average person, and then bring that detail into their novel. 

By reading observant writing, which is almost always present in the classics, you are taking a master class in observation. 

And when you go back out into the world you see more than you could before. 

For example, the other day I read a nice description of a character’s face in a novel. 

And then at the grocery store, during a conversation with a charity fundraiser who had gotten my attention, I couldn’t stop noticing how the lines around her mouth moved and danced when she spoke. 

The description in the book had provided me with a new thing to look out for, a new part of the universe that my attention had previously ignored. 

This increased attention to detail can be applied to many areas, and makes life a much richer experience. Even in the most mundane of places you’ll find something interesting to behold. 

You Become a More Original Thinker

If you read what everybody else is reading, you’ll think, write, and talk like everybody else. 

Your opinions, ideas, and perspectives won’t stand out or foster interest. 

This is why The Cultural Tutor, a Twitter thread writer with 1.5 million followers, says he doesn’t read any books published in the last fifty years. He says reading old books promotes his originality. 

You might object now with “but hasn’t everyone read the classics? After all, they are known as the best books to have ever been written.” 

To that I say, look around. 

Does anyone in your social circle claim to have read — like seriously read, not just Sparknoted — Dickens, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Austen, and the rest of the greats? 

Unless you’re a British aristocrat or a PHD in literature, I seriously doubt it. 

The average college educated adult might have the general gist of a few of the great books, but very few have taken the time to extract the endless beauty and wisdom these works contain. 

Even those in high society or the intellectual elite are likely too busy reading the newest releases that everyone will be talking about at the happy hour, or reading Twitter or The New York Times, and thus don’t spend their energy engaging with the classics. 

While there’s nothing wrong with reading new books — I do it all the time — a diet without the classics is an unbalanced one (C.S. Lewis agrees).

If you can muster the courage to turn away from what everyone else is reading, and devote some time to exploring old classic books, you will find treasures hidden within, and then be able to share them with others. 

Check out my article on 6 practical reasons to read old books for more on this. 

Your Vocabulary Expands 

Most classics contain a high density of wonderful words that you don’t ordinarily hear in ordinary conversation. 

Not only big words like calumnate or effervescence, but also short punchy ones like coy, sap, plod, or zeal. 

By exposing yourself to these great words in context, you’ll passively learn them. 

They’ll become a part of your verbal repertoire, thus empowering you to express your thoughts and feelings in more interesting and precise ways. 

You can also take a more active approach to learning words from classics. 

When Jack London was teaching himself the craft of writing, he knew words were the tools, and he went about collecting and memorizing them. 

He’d draw up lists of words he found in the works of great literature he was studying, and then he’d hang them up in places he frequented, like the bathroom, where he would recite them. 

You don’t have to do this if you want to expand your vocabulary. I’ve noticed new words slipping into my active vocabulary from just spending time reading the classics. But some exercises would definitely increase the speed of the acquisition process. 

Added Bonus: You also get a lot of great words for insulting your friends, if that appeals to you, like brute, lout, vulgarian, clodhopper, philistine, oaf, and boor. 

You Become More Articulate

Do you ever feel like you can’t express an opinion clearly, or present an idea in a clear and structured fashion? 

I still feel that way all the time, but I have noticed that reading hard books like the classics has helped me become more skilled and ready with my words. 

Why’s that so? 

Because when you read a classic book, fiction or nonfiction, you are watching an intelligent author present an argument, idea, story, or opinion in a clear and engaging manner. 

Whether you analyze the writing or not, the author’s facility with language will inevitably rub off on you. 

Provided that reading the classics doesn’t turn you into a pedantic snob, you’ll find that with each classic book you read you’re becoming a better speaker, one more capable of finding the right words and arranging them in a comprehensible way.  

You’ll find yourself feeling like Jack London’s autobiographical character, Martin Eden, when he realized: 

“Never had he so loftily framed a lofty thought.” 

Want to read a novel about an autodidact? Check out Martin Eden

Your Tastes Become More Refined

This one is a blessing and a curse, and the experience is different for everyone. 

Some people who read and fall in love with the classics will still love all the books and tv shows they consumed before the plunge, while others will start to grow apart from sources of entertainment that used to bring them joy, preferring the loftier, more subtle forms of literature and thought. 

I’m definitely a mix of both. 

Reading the classics has certainly made me more likely to give up on a popular Netflix show that feels fake and formulaic. 

Then again, I still get a disturbing amount of pleasure from watching reality tv shows like Love is Blind… 

So really it’s a crapshoot. Our taste algorithm is too complicated to predict how an input of classics will really change it. 

Whatever the effects, it’s important to understand why a refined taste is helpful. 

First off, you should know that the benefit is not to be able to look down on other people for liking superhero movies or for reading thriller novels about sexy werewolves. 

After all, some of these genres can actually be well-crafted and well-written, and suffer no demotion in your hierarchy of taste having read the great works.

The major benefit of better taste is that you are better able to identify strengths and weaknesses in art and writing. 

In the case of non-fiction, a refined taste allows you to discriminate between a well-presented idea and a shoddy one, making you better protected from propaganda or misleading advice. 

In the case of a novel, a refined taste empowers you to separate the well-crafted and well-written from the formulaic and lazy, allowing you to both improve your own writing, and choose books that actually enlighten and transform you. 

A thriller, by the way, can be well-crafted and well-written, as can a children’s story, or a story about sexy werewolves. 

I like nice steaks at a fancy restaurant but I also like Taco Bell. 

Taco Bell may be fast food, but at least it’s well-crafted; it does exactly what I want it to, and thus succeeds, in my opinion. I doubt that even if I was a 5-star chef I’d lose my love for the crunchwrap supreme.  

Refined taste, then, doesn’t so much dictate what type of stories or books you like; it just makes you better at identifying quality and appreciating it. 

Your Knowledge Base Grows 

A lot of people think reading literature is a waste of their time because it doesn’t actually give them any knowledge. 

They think it’s all just stories and characters and make believe. 

But that’s rarely the case. 

The great novelists and writers were students of history, art, politics, human nature, science, cultures, and other fields of study.

And they brought insights from those subjects into their works. 

The other day I was reading The Magus, by John Fowles, and felt I was learning a lot about Greek culture in doing so, not to mention esoteric facts about spiritualism and the occult. 

In reading At Play in the Fields of the Lords, I learned a lot about missionary work, ethnology, and the South American rainforests, as well as such existential themes as friendship, identity, and loss. 

In addition to teaching you other subjects, reading classic literature also arms you with the most valuable knowledge there is — not stock tips or tactics to make money online — but self-knowledge. 

Why’s that the most important thing to know? 

Because knowing yourself improves your decision-making. It helps you identify which job will lead to fulfillment, which person to marry, which paths to take at the thousands of forks in the road. 

In essence, it helps you create a life that aligns with your core beliefs, interests, values, and temperament, rather than going through life taking the path of least resistance. 

Check out my article on how to use reading to find your life calling for more. 

You Become More Confident 

It’s harder to be self-conscious when you have a large vocabulary, an articulate mind, and substantial knowledge of the world and human nature, all of which you gain from reading classic books. 

Plus, doing hard things we’re proud of just makes us more confident. It raises our self-esteem. 

Whenever I come back from a backpacking trip I always walk with a bit more pep in my step, a bit more of a rise in my chest. And I speak with more power. 

I think to myself — “if I just marched 50 miles through the forest with 50 pounds on my back, then surely I can handle this client call, surely I can write this article.” 

The same thing happens after finishing a tough chapter or book. And you can carry that self-satisfaction with you wherever you go. 

Your Reading Speed & Comprehension Both Improve

The other day I purchased a book called The Art and Business of Writing Online by Nicholas Cole, which I recommend if you want to do that. 

I read the whole damn 300-page thing in two days, and the whole time I felt like I was flying through it. I was going at like a page a minute. 

I’m sure that’s partly because it’s a great book that relates exactly what I’m trying to accomplish. But it’s also because I’m used to reading much denser and more complicated books. 

Compared to Don Quixote or Beyond Good and Evil, the book’s words and ideas are much easier to comprehend, so I was able to fly through. I’d trained on the hard stuff, so this felt easy. 

This is an underestimated benefit; by reading the classics, you build your reading muscle. 

Think of a tough classic novel or work of philosophy like a barbell with the heaviest weight you can lift. If you do enough squats with that on your back, a few weightless lunges will feel easy. 

In sum, you’ll be able to read easier books at a much faster rate, with higher comprehension, than you used to be capable of. 

You Become a bit of a Mind Reader

Classic literature often tries to get as close to the consciousness of the characters as possible. 

As the reader, you get to see into the minds of the characters. 

For example, when reading about David Copprfield in Dickens’ novel, you see what he’s thinking, how he’s reacting to certain stimuli, and how he’s expressing his emotions. 

This exploration of the minds of human beings, though fictional, makes you better at understanding how real people tick. 

Research backs this up. 

Here’s a quote from a Big Think article on the powers of reading fiction: 

“…research suggests that reading literary fiction improves one’s theory of mind and emotional intelligence.

The translation of these studies suggests that reading fiction can help people become more observant, compassionate, and emotionally responsive. For instance, they will have an easier time noticing when a friend or loved one is upset, allowing them to act accordingly rather than worsening the situation.”

Emotional intelligence can be used in a variety of ways. It can keep you from pissing someone off, or help you gain the trust of a potential client. 

Just make sure you use it for good…

Start Reading Classic Literature

Making reading classic literature part of my daily routine was one of the best decisions I ever made. 

Since I started, my writing has become sharper, my confidence and vocabulary have both grown, and I think (or at least I like to think) that I’ve become somewhat more original, observant, and self-aware. 

If you want to start this journey and become an avid reader of the classics, check out my guide: how to start reading the classics: 10 steps for beginners

Happy reading! 


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.

Recent Posts