They’re not just for “smart people.”
Like most readers, I’d like to think I have a broad and varied taste in books. But if you asked my family and friends what I enjoy reading the most, their answer would probably be some variation on “Beowulf.” And it’s true. I may in fact be the only self-identifying “epic poetry evangelist” in Grand Prairie, Texas. I’m fairly vocal about my love for old books and more than once have found myself bringing a spare copy of Beowulf or The Iliad to give as a hostess gift or pass along to a friend over lunch—always accompanied by an enthusiastic spiel (my brother-in-law Jonathan calls them “speeches”) pitching the merits of the work.
My friends and most of my extended family are very tolerant of my antiquarian tastes. At best, it’s an eccentricity bordering on a waste of time. At worst, it’s a snobbery they’re willing to indulge. A few of the more well-meaning sort imply that I am able to digest such ponderous tomes through some exceptional mental capacity. “You’re so smart to be able to read that,” they say. “I wouldn’t be able to make it past the first chapter.”
What all of these responses have in common is that they are justifications – not just for why someone else would read an old book (eccentricity, snobbery, superhuman intelligence), but for why they won’t. My tastes are normal. I’m not a snob. I’m not as smart as he is. They’re reasons we give ourselves for not doing something. What I’d like to do in the remainder of this article is give you an antidote for this kind of thinking. You don’t have to be a snob or a literary wunderkind to enjoy “the Great Books.” What you do need to be is open to experiences beyond your time and culture.
In On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis says that one of the chief values of old literature lies in its ability to show us the blind spots of our own day and age—assumptions we take for granted at which earlier ages (and perhaps later ages) would have scoffed:
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books… None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. 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.”
Old literature possesses the ability to tether us to our collective past in a way that even history cannot. Lewis suggests that this tethering is precisely what we need in our modern (or postmodern) age because it reveals the blind spots of our own chronological parochialism. It is this tethering which allows us to see the great questions and problems of our own time and culture through the eyes of another time and culture—something we cannot do any other way.
A ramble through the local shopping mall or a visit to your local coffee shop reveals how deeply this need is felt. Classic couture, classic haircuts, classic brews, and classic shoes are in vogue with the smart set because on a purely aesthetic level they assuage the Millennial’s lack of cultural legitimacy. The joke goes that a hipster is “someone who dresses like your grandpa, but doesn’t have your grandpa’s work ethic.” Humor aside, the truth remains that most fashion is a studied attempt in derived authenticity, lasting only until the next fashion trend. I would go so far as to suggest that the old adage is wrong; books, not clothes, make the man.
Another symptom is our cultural obsession with “awareness.” We are aware of everything–of cancer, of race and gender issues, of economic inequality–and we hold regular fund raisers to ensure that we remain so. We are deeply aware of our need to be aware because there is no crime so great as naiveté. We know that we have blind spots (even if we may disagree as to what they are), and so we try to heal them by social activism. It is a well-meaning but ultimately short-sighted effort. Like fashion, much of social activism tends toward the opposite of diversity because it abolishes persons and replaces them with more easily categorized selves.
Educator Joshua Gibbs says of the self that it is “a truncated image of the person… fabricated by the person so that his personhood can be contemplated.” So it is with our culture. We make ourselves and we make others into truncated images so that they will fit our convenient labels–our core constituencies and key demographics. We cease to be persons and devolve into labels.
But for this, too, old books may prove a balm. One of the greatest virtues of good literature is its ability to help us see and experience things beyond the limited scope of our carefully crafted self. To weep with Helen over the body of Hector is to experience self-transcending sorrow over nobility that has passed from the world. To sit in the dark with Beowulf and wait for Grendel is to know the creeping terror of the hall and the night raid, when the march-reever stalks, threatening everything upon which your civilization and reason is founded. To wander the wastes of Beleriand with Turin Turambar or sit beside the throne of Oedipus the King is to see firsthand the dread marriage of choice and fate–to go beyond the mere “determinism” of philosophers. It is to lend pathos to our metaphysic, where before we had only logos.
Allow me to end with a final quote from Lewis, who ends his seminal An Experiment in Criticism with these thoughts:
“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
An information technology professional and self-proclaimed epic poetry evangelist, Richard Rohlin lives with his wife and two beautiful daughters on the outskirts of Grand Prairie, Texas. When he isn’t reading Homer or trying to keep up with the lawn, Richard splits his time between serving at his local church and writing the classiest pulp fiction epic of our time. He has authored and published three books through Grapple Gun Publishing.