Reading Great Books Part 2
Robert Woods, Past Fellow
Despite recent screeds about the precipitous decline of American culture, and what we are told is daily diminishing literacy, there are some signs that we live in an age that loves books and reading. We're always hearing about the New York Times Bestseller list, and the spectacular phenomenon of Oprah's Book Club. Harry Potter is the biggest kids' star ever, and so far, he is to be found only in the pages of books - and very long ones at that. More books are being sold than ever before, and even many of our most popular movies are based on good books. A short trip to the local mega-bookstore seems to confirm the view that we are in a time where books are loved. People aren't in these bookstores for the comfortable chairs and the coffee bars, although they do make for a nice, welcoming environment. They are there for the books. For every person on the beach with a radio blasting, there is someone a safe distance away reading a fat, hardcover novel. And look around on airplanes. It's amazing how well books are surviving the age of the laptop computer. Yes, we do seem to love books.
But there were other places and times that loved books more. One telling example of extreme bibliophilia is conveyed well by an event in the life of the brilliant Renaissance Christian Humanist Desiderius Erasmus. It is told that he once came across a fragment of paper, apparently torn from a book, stuck insome mud on the street. He proceeded to stand there for a lengthy period of time, both contemplating the contents of the page and feeling distressed that such a thing as this could have happened in the first place. We should remember that this is the same man who wrote, "When I get a little money, I buy books; and if there is any left I buy food and clothes."
In my experience as an adult I've heard some people loudly declare, in what seemed to be a voice of pride, "Well I just donąt read anything." I'm reminded of the insight once conveyed by C.S. Lewis when he wrote, "If you attempted ? to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing ? if you don't read good books, you will read bad ones. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions."
I know one "successful" executive who glibly states that he hasn't read a book in twenty years. Trust me, twenty minutes of conversation with him will confirm this to be true. In some ways, he is considered rich, but in other respects, his life is terribly impoverished.
It is not by accident that the terms 'literate', 'literature', 'library', 'liberate', and 'leisure' are all cousins in the history of words. Many people living today are intellectual and spiritual slaves to the present moment because they have not allowed themselves to be liberated by the pleasures and insights of some of the best books written by the greatest minds in human history.
There are some people whose reading experience does not extend beyond the back of the breakfast cereal box, or the most recent issue of some popular magazine filled with more pictures than words. But for a citizen of the world, reading can be a sacred activity. The same tools that are developed when we read a great book can complement our study of the meaning of life.
any of us have seen the bumper sticker that affirms: "If You can Read This: Thank A Teacher." I've often thought we should have a bumper sticker that states: "If the Western World Can Read At All: Thank a Medieval Monk!" It was during the "Dark Ages" that countless monks copied by hand both scripture and other ancient writings, hoping to keep their important insights alive for future generations. They believed that they owed it to God and their fellow men to preserve the best of human culture. It was thus a small band of people with deep religious convictions and solid religious institutions who preserved literacy for the rest of us during a time of extraordinarily widespread social and cultural decline. It is them that we have to thank for our opportunity now to read some of the best books ever written.
The lesson for us today is that, as we stand at the dawn of a new age, with increasing illiteracy and aliteracy (the phenomenon of people who can read but don't), we need to be a people familiar with great books. You don't have to be a monk, but you can participate in your own way in both preserving and passing on the best that has ever been thought and said. You can also benefit from it immensely. Reading great books is like looking through the highly reflective yet transparent glass of a two-way mirror. We can gaze through into a different world, or a different view of things, and we can also see something of ourselves, as we shift our vision from within the book to within our soul.
I am convinced by my own experience, and the countless testimonies of multitudes, that reading the greatest of books can serve in a powerful way to provide us with lofty things to think and talk about with each other. No doubt, the reason some impoverished souls run around busying themselves with the superficial and trivial side of life is because they are not feeding their minds with anything greater. Their lives are so thin that, instead of reflecting inwardly, they direct their attention entirely outwardly, and gawk at anything that seems to glitter.
I am equally confident that good people reading good books in the right spirit can contribute to a more general living of the good life, and can assist us in making our contribution to the good society. Books can deepen us and they can broaden us. They can give us clues into the darkest recesses, and highest potential, of human behavior. And they can suggest new ways of living and working together that can improve the quality of our daily experience right away.
After even a few minutes of reflecting on the importance of books in our lives, and then writing a short essay in praise of reading like this, I just want to go, grab a book off the shelf, sit in my recliner, turn on the reading lamp, and depart for a while. After a bit of reflection in your own heart, you may want to go pay a visit to your local bookstore, thank the owner for what they make available, or find that old library card and go use it. You also might be moved to feel a bit of gratitude that you have both the power and opportunity to read words that can bring pleasure and also expand the human soul.
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