Why I’m Learning to Love ‘Great Books’

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“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 a 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.”

— C.S. Lewis

Reading is something I love to do. The thought of reading great works immediately stirs me…..my heart pitter patters just a bit. Discussing ideas, themes, and virtue invigorates a part of my soul that would surely be lying dormant if not for great books.

It wasn’t always this way. I enjoyed reading at an early age, but I never developed a taste for classics— I’m of the The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High generation! Then, in college and into early adulthood, I skipped reading fiction, thinking it was a total waste of time. I somehow became convinced I could really only learn or grow or know God through non-fiction. Years after college and grad school, because of the prompting of some close friends, I once again got on the path of fiction reading with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I remember exactly where I was when I started…it was Springtime….a bed and breakfast in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Not my typical place of reading, but Glenn and I were fortunate to take a trip at the start of a sabbatical seven years ago. Looking through the window of a beautiful Victorian home, I saw a park filled with gorgeous cherry blossom trees. Through the pages of the book, I was dropped into a dramatic story, into the very depths of the human heart, wrestling with themes of kindness, love, hatred, and tragedy.

As I’ve grown, I’ve yearned to read great works that would stretch me not only intellectually but emotionally as well. My desire is not just to get through a book, memorizing information to spit out, or to meet a requirement of sorts, but to soak in a book’s richness. Last week, I began my second book by Saint Augustine, The City of God. Three years ago, I couldn’t have imagined even attempting to read his works. But last year, I read Confessions. His ability to communicate our human desires and longings are outstanding. Of course, as the picture above of my current reading list shows, I don’t only read ‘great books’; but I do try to always include one in the stack.

So, what makes ‘great books’ great?

‘Great books’ echo transcendent themes in an artful way. They are not great because some literary authority approved them, but because they help us to see the human story. A self-help book may give seven steps to living a successful life or give a simple, un-nuanced message about quitting negative behaviors. But a great story may invite you subversively into exploring the deeper motivations for such behavior.

You might see yourself in a character or find it easy to empathize with them. Maybe a character’s voice finally gives you language to voice a feeling from a past experience you didn’t even know was hidden deep in your heart.

“What is an imagination for if not to enable you to peep at life through other people’s eyes.” – Anne, in Anne of Avonlea, L.M. Montgomery

Great books’ need not be a works of fiction. I mentioned reading St. Augustine— his works were not fiction, of course, but fit the designation of a ‘great book’ because of the themes he deals with. Augustine himself describes reading Cicero’s Hortensius at the age of 19:

The book changed my way of feeling…. For under its influence my petitions and desires altered. All my hollow hopes suddenly seemed worthless, and with unbelievable intensity my heart burned with longing for the immortality that wisdom seemed to promise…. It had won me over not by its style, but by what it had to say. (from Desire and Delight: A New Reading of Augustine’s Confessions by Margaret R. Miles)

Great books are meant to be read more than once. Reading great books over and over again helps the richness of their words sink deeper and deeper with each reading. This does not mean that a great book has to be an old book. If reading a great book written hundreds or thousands of years ago is intimidating, try reading a great work of modern fiction. (Wendell Barry’s Jayber Crow is a great example.)

Wherever you are in your reading journey, you can always take another step. You can crack open that Russian novel you’ve been afraid to try; you can read one sonnet from Shakespeare; you can dust off an old classic you were forced to read in high school. Who knows what adventures await!

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