Saturday, August 14, 2010

Books and Discussions

Quite often we think of the book reading person as the introverted, passive, unsocial quiet person who sits in the corner with his thick glasses reading while everyone else is having fun. (Okay, so that does describe me, but that is not the point.)

That type of reader is missing the point of books just as the non-reader misses the point of books.

First, we grant that reading does involve some investment of time and the discipline of concentration. It is not just reading, but reading intelligently (and joyfully) that counts. Beware of thinking that Internet surfing (including reading this blog) or reading the newspaper really work as serious reading. Reading is hard work. The whole body has to become passive with only the hands in partial action with the eyes scanning the pages.

Second, the point of reading is not the escape from people and activities, but the better involvement with people and activities. Anyone who reads to avoid people is not reading right. Reading is a communal activity. Books are meant as bridges for conversation, shared thought, and interaction. Sometimes, I have students who can race through a book and reach the end, but they cannot discuss it. Better is a little understanding with some "iron sharpening iron" discussions than lots of reading that gets sealed up inside.

Good readers love the opportunity to share their readings. Several years ago, I remember Kara Gies (now, Wicks) telling Dr. Louise Cowan that she had read Virgil's Ecologues while she was in Italy. Dr. Cowan responded by saying that what matters most is reading with others and discussing what was read. Both were right. We read a book--sometimes in settings as wonderful as Italy--but we also need the discussion group, the peer group, and that most wonderful of settings--the classroom.

There are some wonderful books about books. The authors and compilers share their readings or seek to draw others into the delight and value of particular books. Here are some wonderful books about books.

Invitation to the Classics is edited by Dr. Louise Cowan and Os Guinness. Those two authors/thinkers alone would draw me to any book. This book is a collection of thoughtful essays on classic works. It is disappointing only in its brevity. I have read portions of this book over and over again. It is amazing how much thought has been compressed into these short essays. The contributors are in many cases former students of Dr. Cowan's program at the University of Dallas.

I have had this book--Great Books: A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West's Classic Literature by Anthony O'Hear--for several months, but I have not yet unwrapped the plastic covering around it. I am saving it for some special time when I need a book about books. From what I have read of it, it will be a delightful read from beginning to end.

This book--Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order by Charles Hill--is currently featured on my regular Houseblog. This book is interesting in that the author is referencing and promoting literature as being valuable for conducting and understanding world affairs. I agree with his thesis. Reading Macbeth may be more helpful in understanding current events than reading current events.

Alexander the Great carried the Iliad with him on his eastern conquests, keeping it, Plutarch said, with a dagger under his pillow, "declaring that he esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge." Priot to sainthood, Thomas More read Roman poets and playwrights. Queen Elizabeth I read Cicero for rhetorical and legal strategy. Fredrick the Great studied Homer's Odysseus as a model for princes. John Adams read Thucydides in Greek while being guided through the "labyrinth" of human nature by Swift, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Abraham Lincoln slowly read through Whitman's Leaves of Grass and was changed by it. Gladstone, four times prime minister under Queen Victoria, wrote volumes of scholarly commentary on Homer and produced vivid translations--the best kind of close reading--of Horace's Odes. Lawrence of Arabia, who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks, carried Malory's Morte d'Arthur, if not in his camel's saddlebags then in his head.

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