Anyone, at any age, can become a lover of literature and will be a better and happier person for it. Take me, for instance. “Literaphilia” didn’t hit me until after I graduated from college.
I’m not proud of it, but television inspired me to become more well-read. I don’t mean in the manner of Groucho Marx, who said, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” No, I was a more avid television-watcher than book-reader for most of my formative years. Nevertheless, somehow that path led me to an exuberant appreciation of good literature.
I know a lot of people who are bookies (the kind who haunt libraries and bookstores, not racetracks), and I hear that their childhoods consisted of hiding in closets to read novels instead of doing chores, teaching themselves to read at the age of 3, and, presumably, leaving the womb clinging to a book and flashlight. In comparison, I was practically illiterate as a child! But I’m making up for lost time now, in my middle age.
I learned to read at the usual age. I looked forward to school book fairs and spent time in the school library with all the other grade-school rabble. No one, however, would have called me a bookworm. In the library, I gravitated to the books about horses. Especially those with lots of pictures.
I liked books. The books I enjoyed were little books, children’s books, lavishly illustrated fairy stories. I loved being read to, whether by parents or teachers. I recall my anticipation of my dad reading “Black Beauty” at bedtime and the fourth-grade teacher reading “How to Eat Fried Worms” after recess. Probably, I had not heard of most of the classics nor even known the word “literature” in my younger years.
I have a clear memory of the first real chapter book I read on my own for enjoyment—in sixth grade. It was a horse story, of course, but this time with no pictures. I read literature in high school as well as college, but mostly by assignment rather than for love of reading.
Don’t tell anyone, but I had never even heard of Jane Austen until I was a grown-up. (Shhhhhh!)
I don’t believe any of this should be held against me. What matters is that I have come to discover this marvelous world of great books that enlarge my mind, good books that bring pleasure, and the joy of reading, which allows me to, as Socrates said, improve myself “by other men’s writings so that I shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.”
I might have come late to the party, but I’m at the party. Thankfully, it is not an elite party, and invitations can be issued even in the most unlikely of places.
There was a moment when I realized how little I knew literature. It occurred shortly after I had graduated from college, and believe it or not, it was television that brought me to the realization. To be precise, it was the supercilious Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, a character in the series “M*A*S*H,” who inspired me to become a reader and lover of literature.
Major Winchester was the epitome of culture, discriminating taste, and Ivy League education. He blithely recited passages of Shakespeare and quoted poetry with ease. His colleagues often recognized the references, and they were not exactly what you would call highbrow. Next to them, there is no question that I was vastly deficient in culture. And it mattered to me.
It was clear that I needed to step up my game. So, off I went to the library with my firm commitment and empty head.
It was not until I arrived at the bibliophilic institution that I was faced with the Catch-22. An ignorant patron could not simply walk up to the section labeled “Books you ought to have read by now” and start choosing. I had no idea where to begin. I was not about to admit my educational negligence to the librarian by asking what I ought to read first. I happened upon a spinning display labeled “classics” and had at it. Aha! Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist”! Even I had heard of that, so my project was begun.
This was my first step out of being the subject of a quip attributed to Mark Twain: “The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can’t.” It was a haphazard course of remediation, but it was a course and I was on my way.
The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.” This is good advice. And even in the days before Googling ubiquitous lists of “books you ought to read,” this was possible. If one is determined to become better-read, one will inevitably be drawn by something like a magnetic force toward other literature lovers and the great works they recommend.
I have learned, for instance, of Mortimer Adler, known for his catalog of The Great Books, the proper reading of which (conveniently taught in his book, “How to Read a Book”) can stuff anyone so full of education and impressive quotations as to satisfy an army of Major Charles Emerson Winchester IIIs.
The True Aim of Education
It is not just a matter of vanity to become conversant in literature in order to be able to spout off impressive quotations. And it goes beyond just reading a lot indiscriminately. It is a project that will increase the reader’s empathy, vocabulary, and sense of history. To become familiar with the canon of writings that has withstood the test of time from epochs past is to grasp the unchanging workings of humanity.
Albert Einstein expressed it thus: “Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.”
Reading the great works allows one to grapple with the big questions of life vicariously. When one begins, one enters into a great conversation that has been ongoing for centuries. The works of literature that have risen to the top over these centuries help to form great individuals and, consequently, better societies and a better world. Science fiction author Ray Bradbury issued the alarming warning: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Author and professor John Senior recognized this truth at a time when education was becoming ungrounded. Through teaching, he sought to do his part to reclaim a culture on its way to destruction. He was one of the founders of the renowned Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas in the 1970s. It captured and directed the imagination of many a wandering soul by inspiring and cultivating their sense of wonder. He placed his focus on the humanities—great literature, the beauty of creation, the soul-satisfying order of learning—to restore meaning to education, which had become merely a fragmented collection of information.
The aim of true education, whether institutional or self-directed, ought to be the growth of the student to become more fully human. This is a far cry from the idea we encounter all too often today that the purpose of schooling is to form a better human tool for the machinery of production. The phrase “a productive member of society” ought not be the compliment we often take it to be. An educated person is one who has contemplated and assimilated the wisdom of the ages, who has recognized and reflected on beauty, and who is ever inclined toward the good.
How I wish I had been guided by these and other great minds from my earliest days of learning. But I wasn’t. However, since they are still there now to guide me through their books and those of their admirers, I can begin where I am. I take comfort in the words of Mortimer Adler: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
The great part of being a late starter is that I will never run out of good things to read! More likely, I will die having only scratched the surface of the good stuff. The good advice of Henry David Thoreau rings true: “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”
And if I follow the course of real education through great literature, I save myself the wasted time and trouble of reading the banal and wretched.
Susannah Pearce holds a master’s degree in theology and writes from her home in South Carolina.