By Bryan Smith
We all participate in a broad human conversation. Sometimes the conversation is casual and banal, at other times it is more formal. In either case, it can be trite or profound, flattering or confrontational, degrading or uplifting. Books are one of the ways we have packaged our reflections upon our common experiences; but of the oceans of ink humans have spilt in the making of books, relatively few continue to resonate across the centuries with the souls of later ages. Those few are the works we call the classics. They are not revered because they are old, they are old because they have been revered for generation after generation by people of many countries and tongues who have found them to be as contemporary in their day as we may find them to be in ours.
There is, however, a misconception about these works—the notion that they are “college books” or even “school books” written for students and studied for an upcoming test. It is this misconception I would especially like to address. There is a category of printed matter we may properly call the school book. Books in this class declare their purposes in their own introductions with words like the following: “…to cultivate in the student a capacity for balanced judgment and informed understanding about …”, or “… to lead students on to intermediate studies by a traditional emphasis on chronological organization, while also including many fresh insights from the social sciences….”
The point of these books is to present information in a systematic way to accomplish a course of study which will be evaluated at the end. Such books have their place, they are useful for a narrow end. But listen to Plutarch’s explanation for his Parallel Lives:“It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.” This is not spoken to the student, it is spoken to anyone who wants to live well. Likewise, all who have suffered the vicissitudes of life will find a companion in Boethius, who begins his Consolation of Philosophy: “I who once wrote songs with keen delight am now by sorrow driven to take up melancholy measures.” When Milton in Paradise Lost declares his purpose to “justify the ways of God to men,” he has more in mind than ushering students to one more level of comparative theology.
Though Plutarch and Boethius and Milton might, even today, be read by students, they did not write for students. They wrote for us all, and we should let no epithet or category place such valuable correspondences on the shelves of benign neglect. I realize that some people view imaginative literature as superficial, perhaps little more than decorative. There is even a stripe of Christian who, after the Bible, wishes only to spend his time on what is “true.” At a party recently, I heard such a fellow defend his preference for history over literature by saying, “If it didn’t really happen, I’m not interested in reading about it.” I wonder if he refuses to read the parables of Christ or the hypothetical passages of Paul. I wonder if, in his preference for history, he has read Livy’s account of the secession of the plebeians and, coming to the passage in which Agrippa tells the plebs a lengthy fable, has refused to read on because the events of the fable never happened. Probably he would read on because—though the events of the fable are not “facts”—it is a fact that Agrippa told the fable with some end in mind. But then I would say this: it is also a historical fact that a very thoughtful man named Dostoevsky told a very thoughtful story called The Brothers Karamazov, and this fact alone should be encouragement enough for him to read it. He might discover that not all truths are to be found in facts, as he might also find that an account of many facts can be, in fact, untruthful.
The three books I might have recommended to him are the ones I recommend here as books not to be read for the sake of a final exam, but as works of imaginative literature that embody truths we cannot afford to disregard—as books to live with. They are Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. They are respectively ancient, medieval, and modern, but I do not recommend them because I claim they are the best. Certainly they would be hard to surpass if one were naming the best of the best, but I am using them as good examples of great works that all respond to fundamental ways the soul negotiates the varied landscape of human experience.
In the Iliad, an epic tale of the struggle to reaffirm the underpinnings of civil society, we see the terrible beauty of Achilles as he enters the war out of love for his friend. We see the same mighty warrior soften when an old king bares his head in humility to beg for the body of his dead son. In the Divine Comedy, Dante guides us through the just torments of Hell to see the impotence of evil. He leads us on to the Earthly Paradise and at last to a heavenly vision that reveals the cosmic order and shows us the true path in life. In The Brothers Karamazov we see the influence of evil in a family and in a community. We see also the most brilliant image of a Christian soul in Fr. Zossima, and a young disciple’s journey into the fallen world. These three books, if you are thoughtful, will keep you busy for the rest of your life.
Where will you find the time? I don’t know. Stop watching television; it’s banal, commercial, and repetitive at best. Skip reading the news of the latest mediocre human behavior; if anything really important happens, someone will call you. Let the book on your nightstand be something that is not likely in ten years to be out of print, ground to fiber insulation, or building up the landfills of America along with cereal boxes, plastic bags, and beer cans. Let a book—a good one—that your child is assigned become family reading at home. In this way, you can break down that wrongheaded distinction that keeps the really good books up on shelves. You can break through the notion that the Iliad is a book to be read in school and claim it again as the property of any thoughtful human. You can reassert the truth that we participate in this great conversation because we are members of the human race. You can at last say, with Lewis, that we read in order to know that we are not alone.