On Reading Books: A Confession

There was a time when I would have been embarrassed to say how many of the “great books” I have not read. There was a time when, if someone were to ask me if I had read some classic work like say, The Aeneid, I would have lied, said I read it, and even feigned some discussion with what I knew of it generally. There was a part of me that, because I teach philosophy, history, theology and the like, and because I have a bit of a reputation as someone who knows a bit about a variety of topics, that I was ashamed of the fact that there were so many classics that I had not, in fact, read. What would they think of me, if they knew I had never actually read Moby Dick!?

I have also made it a priority to build a library in my home. When people would see how many books I own, I often got some snide remark about whether I had read them all, and there was a part of me that felt I needed to justify outwardly this “show” of books, even though I knew they were not for show, but for study. As Umberto Eco said on the subject:

The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already read books and do not think of the library as a working tool. But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse.

Furthermore, while I have taught at a classical school for eight years which draws on C.S. Lewis for its name and is saturated with references to The Chronicles of Narnia: and yet, until two years ago I had never read a single word of The Chronicles of Narnia. I know I faked several conversations at school, and probably during the interview process as well. I’m sure there are more complex reasons for why I felt compelled to be dishonest about this: pride, shame, embarrassment, etc.

Again I have to say that I used to lie about the books I’d read. I have now come to see that there is no shame in having failed to read some “great work”—for there are far too many for anyone to have read them all. Furthermore, there are even far too many of the “essentials” to have read them all! I still get a kick out of people who are shocked to discover I have never read, say, Pilgrim’s Progress. “It’s on my list,” I say, “I’ll get to it!”

The problem is further compounded by the great writers who are still writing great books. I think I would be cheating myself if I only read books published more than 100 years ago. And if I want great writers to keep writing, there have to be people like me who read (and more importantly, who buy) their work. So, I try to keep a balance between the old classics, the new classics, and just the new ones in general.

Like C.S. Lewis says somewhere (but I cannot remember where), for a good book, after you have read it the first time, then you are ready  to read it (or something to that effect). So, I can safely say that for many of the “great books,” I am ready to read them now!

So, “No,” I haven’t read them all yet. I’m working on them. I have not yet made it to War and Peace and vast majority of Dickens, but I’ll get there, maybe, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.

 

Growing Up Without Growing Old

Growing up we would often have large family gatherings at my grandparent’s house: a large, two-story home in a small mid-western town filled with cousins, aunts, uncles, and the smells of potatoes, green-beans, casseroles, and pork chops or meatloaf or steak wafting from the kitchen. When it came time to sit down for the meal, a strict division was observed. In the main dining room area (which was not really a separate room, but an extension of the kitchen), with the heavy, crafted dining room table, fancy plate-ware, utensils, and glasses sat the “adults.” In the rear utility room with card tables and chairs, paper plates, and plastic cups sat the “kids.” We, as “kids,” were relegated away from the adult world. As an adult, I understand this practical impulse, children are messy and loud and cannot carry the conversation that an adult can. But as a child, one of the things I wanted most was to sit at the “adult” table, to sit on the big wooden chairs, to hear the “grown-up” conversation, and use the fancy dishware.

I am sure this kind of desire is not unique to my childhood. When children are quite young, parents will often appeal to them “growing up” or “being a big boy or girl” in order to get them to do something. “Be a big boy Trent, and eat your vegetables!” Yet, why do parents do this, and why does it often work? It works because there is a natural desire within the child to become an adult. A “child” is not what we are meant to be. It is a stage in the developmental processes of becoming a fully formed human. Children want to grow up. Boys want to become men, and girls want to become women.

Yet, we often find that when children do, in fact, “grow-up” they are dissatisfied with the adult life. There are bills to pay, obligations to career and family, burdens and responsibilities that they never imagined. So then, we long for a return to childhood. We reminisce about the by-gone, carefree days of our youth. We even tell children to cherish childhood because they will miss it. “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” So which is it: do we want to grow up or do we want to remain children? It is almost as if there are two separate worlds that exist between childhood and adulthood, and no matter which we’re in, we wish we were in the other.

The child must grow into the adult, able to reason and bear responsibility, but must not leave behind the wonder, energy, and whimsy of the child. The adult must maintain the spirit for life that is often lost under the weight of adulthood. How exactly this might be accomplished is left for another time. Yet the goal seems to be the ability to grow up without growing old.

Unendurable Attributes of Movies

I’ve stopped going to movies. It is hard to say which is more unendurable, the sentimental blasphemy of Knothead movies like The Sound of Music or sitting in a theater with strangers watching other strangers engage in sexual intercourse and sodomy on the giant 3-D Pan-a-Vision screen.

~Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins, pg. 19.

Walker Percy

Is There Beauty in Sodom?

ANNA AKHMATOVA

Lot’s Wife

The just man followed then his angel
Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright;
But a wild grief in his wife’s bosom cried,
Look back, it is not too late for a last sight

Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
And the tall house with empty windows where
You loved your husband and your babes were born.

She turned, and looking on the bitter view
Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain;
Into transparent salt her body grew,
And her quick feet were rooted in the plain.

Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not
The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.

~Richard Wilbur, from his Collected Poems: 1943-2004.

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Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.

~Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.