On Reading Great Books

One of the marks of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth Century was their propensity for burning books in an attempt to “cleanse” the culture of any spirit that was contrary to their ideology.  Anyone who has read or seen the Book Thief can see an example of those who acted as a cultural remnant to keep the great works alive.  Every totalitarian culture has needed this remnant to act, and unfortunately ours is no different.  Interestingly enough though, we willingly give them away and no actual book burning is necessary.  Instead we bury them under a mountain of dust.  We cannot really say why other than “reading is boring.”  But I believe there is a deeper reason at work here, one that needs to be brought out into the light of day so that we can restore literary works to the prominent role they have held in nearly every culture that has gone by.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the United States has a 99% literacy rate.  Despite this incredible fact that nearly everyone can read, so few choose to except when absolutely necessary.  I deliberately referenced the CIA World Factbook and spoke of the “incredible fact” of nearly everyone being able to read.  At the heart of the Information Age is the fundamental confusion between information and understanding.  We confuse having a lot of facts about a thing with having an understanding of it.

Most people read merely for information.  They increase their store of facts, but have not increased their understanding.  In many ways, our patron saint is Cliff Clavin who could bombard the patrons at Cheers with fact after mind-blowing fact.  But all of these facts without an overall context in which to place them leaves us fragmented.  Where do these facts fit into reality and how do they help explain it?

Cliff Clavin

Of course, reading also takes a great deal of time and attention.  If I am reading merely to increase my store of information why bother reading at all when I can simply turn on the TV?  The average time a TV new show in America devotes to each subject is less than a minute.  This gives the viewer no time to interpret what the meaning of what they just saw is and they assume that the facts speak for themselves.  If the media is wise (often like serpents) they will spin the presentation of those facts and hide the interpretation within that presentation.  The point however is that each event become merely like an episode on a sit-com with very little connection to some overall story.  By next week, the focus will be on a new set of facts.

Reading for understanding however takes in information but attempts to fit it into an overall context.  It seeks to understand so that one might explain.  You are left fundamentally changed by an encounter with a good book because you have moved from understanding less to understanding more.  You will forget facts, but understanding never ceases.

There is a second reason why we do not read and that is because we have been conditioned to be chronological snobs.  To read the good books assumes that those who have gone before us are wiser than us in some way.  There is a certain inequality that must naturally exist between a teacher through speech or writing and a student.  We tend to think that those who have gone before us were simpletons.  We don’t read Aristotle’s metaphysics and his ethics because we proved his physics were wrong.

Even if we read good books by the authors who are still with us, we don’t like the presence of this inequality between teachers and students.  We prefer to have “facilitators” and not teachers.  All of the great men throughout history however were great readers and schooled in the classics.  Read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and see what a love of reading and learning turned him into.

Obviously it is not enough to say why we don’t read.  What makes reading an integral way for us to grow in understanding?

The most obvious reason is that we can only learn from teachers who are somehow present to us.  Books makes the great teachers who are absent present to us.  It is as if we can have a conversation with the greatest minds of those who ever lived.  I have long claimed that St. Thomas Aquinas is my spiritual father because of the conversations I have had with him through his writings.  The fact that he is a saint obviously helps facilitate that learning as well, but whether the author is a saint or not, reading allows us the vantage point of reality that is only possible when we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Culturally, we suffer from a form of ADD in which we cannot sit still or concentrate for any length of time.  This is because we have forgotten how to control our imaginations and memory.  The minute things are quiet, our imaginations begin to run amok.  However when we read, the mind seizes control of these two faculties to form images and recall other things related to what we are reading.  This soon becomes habitual and we have greater control of them even when we are not reading.  In many ways, reading can help to undo this effect of the Fall.

In reading this essay, one could rightly sense a certain amount of personal prejudice for reading Old Books.  The Old Books have stood the test of time not because they are particularly well written (most of them are), but because they shed light on the eternal truths.  As CS Lewis says in his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, we ought to be prejudicial toward the Old Books because,

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we.  But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

What makes Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets so enduring is his portrayal of the good and evil that runs through man’s heart.  The Divine Comedy is remarkable not just for its innovative use of terza rima, but also for the imaginative manner in which the author depicts man’s journey to his ultimate end that Dante built on St. Thomas’ philosophical vision of man.  With all the books on marriage and family being written today, which one could supplant Homer’s Odyssey in portraying the family as the center of civilization?

In closing, I can find no better summary than that of Chesterton (another giant we should mount), “It is always supposed that the man in question has discovered a new idea.  But, as a fact, what is new is not the idea, but only the isolation of the idea. The idea itself can be found, in all probability, scattered frequently enough through all the great books of a more classic or impartial temper, from Homer and Virgil to Fielding and Dickens. You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas.  The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and of all the answers to it as well.”

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