Seeking Refuge in Great Books


I’ve been reading The Count of Monte Cristo this week. I could’ve sworn I’d read it already, but when a nearly 1200 page book showed up at my house, I realized I hadn’t. It’s immense and the first hundred pages are slow going, but when it picks up, it becomes totally immersive.

One of the reason I like reading older classics is that you see that the world really is the same as it has always been. Despots rise and fall. Families experience tragedies that alter their histories. Men and women from humble beginnings do extraordinarily great things.

For the past ten years or so fiction has been a low percentage of the books I’ve read. I like history and biography best, but lately I’ve wanted to read more fiction, especially the kind of stuff yo have to read as an English major. Fiction can unburden the reader of concerns about historicity. When you read non-fiction, you should always be on guard for the agenda of the writer. As Howard Zinn, says, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

With fiction, you can lower your guard and open yourself up to the beauty (or lack of) in the writing. You can identify with the heroes or villains with greater ease because you don’t have to keep their real heroics and crimes tallied as you read. Fiction allows you to guiltlessly experience the world. In the current climate of “alternative facts” and weaponized discourse, I’ve found it very centering to think about the lives and actions of characters.

Another benefit of all the reading I’ve been doing is an increased attention span. I set myself a fairly aggressive reading goal this year (100 books) and to do it I’ve had to give up throwing time away on internet browsing and Netflix shows. I still don’t think there’s anything necessarily bad about enjoying an interesting show or website, but the more of that stuff I consume, the more scattered my thoughts become. It also becomes ore difficult to stay on task. Even as much as I read, it can be hard for me to stay on task and read without interruption. Often the need to look up a word or something like that tricks me into a quick browse through my Facebook or Instagram feed. At that point I’m vulnerable to losing considerable time responding to my friends’ nonsense.

Werner Herzog was recently on a podcast I enjoy called Entitled Opinions. It’s a pretty highbrow listen put out by Stanford University. Herzog was on to discuss a book he and the host, Robert P. Harrison, love: The Peregrine. Herzog is, as you might imagine, a reader of great and unusual books. He actually prefers reading to watching films. In the conversation he says he only watched four or five movies a year and spends no time online. I’m not surprised he skips the internet, but initially I would’ve thought a great film maker would spend more time with movies. But as I thought more, it made sense. Of all the films I watched last year, I probably only really loved two or three.



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