Classical Literature and Mental Wellness

Credit: Isabelle Vincent/ Credit: Isabelle Vincent/

Introspection and reflection are requisites for growth.

As Carnegie Mellon students, I’m sure that all of you have heard that message in one form or another, be it through lectures, seminars, or newsletters. While it feels like the university talks about the concept of mental wellness ad nauseam—especially to the first years—it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a priority. After all, getting a degree isn’t worth going off the deep end, and it’s wonderful to be in a college environment where that’s given due emphasis.

What can you do about your mental wellness?

The school offers excellent resources like the mindfulness room and free subscriptions to Headspace, and while meditation and relaxation are very important, I’d like to suggest another healthy practice: reading classical literature.

I’m sure we all have bad memories from high school of cramming Sparknotes and Cliffnotes the night before an English test because we were too lazy or unwilling to do the assigned reading. The syntax and diction were too confusing, the books were too long, and in the frenetic atmosphere that characterizes secondary education, nobody had time for that.

It seems that for many, the habit of reading for pleasure has fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by other competing demands. When we do read, it’s commonly popular fiction or works of technical interest rather than the authors of old. While there’s nothing wrong with that, those pieces primarily entertain us or add to our body of knowledge rather than prompting us to think about our own lives on a deeper and more personal level.

That’s precisely why classical literature in a recreational capacity is so important. Well before the onset of the digital age, brilliant thinkers focused on answering the great questions about life and human nature, and lucky for us they put pen to paper, handing their insights down through history.

Without the aid of Google or Wikipedia, past writers relied on their own intuitions, observations, and reflections, looking within themselves and out to the world for inspiration. When they found something noteworthy, they either delivered it through narrative (as in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) or they just compiled their ideas and presented them to the audience (as in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden).

In reading such works, we in part retrace the author’s steps, seeing the world through their perspective and listening to what they have to say. Often, we are exposed to worldly and novel ways of thinking, and we sometimes find answers to our own problems. These are the books that relieve us of our tunnel vision, forcing us to consider the bigger, more abstract picture. We expand our horizons, adding to the richness of our thoughts and the serenity of our minds. Like a tree, the more entrenched we are in the body of human wisdom, the less likely we are to be blown aside by the winds of adversity, guided by those who came before us.

Does this mean that you must understand every single word that you read? Nope; it’s the central ideas that matter most. Should you go and read (or reread) Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Milton’s Paradise Lost right now? Of course not. But I encourage you, the next time you’re trying to find a book to invest in, consider some of the older titles. You just might be surprised by how much you enjoy—and how much you can gain from—the books you once demonized.

By the way, we’re only talking about mental wellness here. Unfortunately, reading books won’t make you physically fit; you still have to hit the gym for that.