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Taking the Time for Great Literature

May I suggest two pages per day, chewing rather than gulping, absorbing the thought provoking and charming things we miss when barreling through an engrossing tale.

(Image: Nong Vang | Unsplash.com)

This is a good time to dive into a worthy story: Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky), The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien), Death Comes for The Archbishop (Cather), The Quiet American (Greene), The Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis; it’s not just for kids), The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Tolstoy), The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Wilder), To Kill A Mockingbird (Lee), The Count of Monte Cristo (Dumas), A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens), Pride and Prejudice (Austen), The Wind in the Willows (Grahame; not just for kids either), The Picture of Dorian Gray (Wilde), Brideshead Revisited (Waugh), The Betrothed (Manzoni), Watership Down (Adams).

And many, many others, of course.

“I don’t read fiction,” some might say. But I’m not talking about just any fiction; rather, stories that illuminate Truth, Beauty, and The Good in new and fresh ways, different than how we learn from Scripture, the Catechism, biographies of the saints, meditational works, or science and history.

In The Hobbit, Gandalf says to Bilbo, “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!” After having immersed ourselves in the story, Gandalf’s observation illuminates humility in a different way than a functional description, or even a fine meditation. Likewise, in Graham Greene’s raw and troubling The Quiet American, an atheistic journalist who caused the death of another man (Pyle) says, “I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental…Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.” A man with a sense of honor and contrition, but without Truth, Beauty, and The Good honor falls prey to desires and fears. Where does one go to confess and receive forgiveness when there is no God?

How might we read worthy stories, especially the second or third time through? And such stories are worthy of a second or third reading. First, forget about cultural, racial, identity, patriarchal, imperialist, or any other bias. As authors are human, to some extent they are influenced by their times and cultures, but the best transcend such blinders. Stories are meant to be intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually savored like a rich stew or a scrumptious dessert.

May I suggest two pages per day, chewing rather than gulping, absorbing the thought provoking and charming things we miss when barreling through an engrossing tale.

“I don’t read stories by disreputable authors,” some might say. Yes, many great stories had troubled authors, but we can separate art from the artist if we consider several things. Not infrequently, Truth, Beauty, and The Good are illuminated by depicting a deficit of these things in characters, with transformation occurring as the story proceeds and/or the consequences of moral deficits made manifest. It seems to me that great artists are offered a glimpse of the other side of the “Veil”—a blessing and a cross—that enables them to produce such stirring word pictures, and depictions of the human condition in all its glory and misery.

My sense is some accept the burden (Tolkien, Lewis), and some sag under it (Wilde, Greene), but even those who sag low—if they persist in the belief that Truth, Beauty, and The Good truly exist—can reveal something of these Divine attributes in their stories: “…but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.” God-less artists are a different matter, the veil a thing of their own creation where death and decay cannot be overcome. Thus, they and their characters create their own truths, beauty, and good—the theory that art is the only valid religion. Even when excelling at the craft of writing and displaying vivid imaginations, their stories feel like empty calories.

If you appreciate great literature, consider reading something you’ve enjoyed in the past at two pages per day and savor all the new things you’ll see. If you aren’t a reader of literature, give one of these works a try while we’re quarantined or restricted. Truth, Beauty, and The Good await.

• Related at CWR: “Ignatius Critical Editions present great literary works, reject fad and fashion” (Dec. 26, 2019) by Paul Senz


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About Thomas M. Doran 62 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), and its 2018 sequel, The Lucifer Ego. He has worked on hundreds of environmental projects for four decades. He’s a Fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit and was an adjunct professor of civil/environmental engineering at Lawrence Technological University.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent suggestion, Mr. Doran.

    Allow me please to add Mark Helprin to your list.

    He’s someone who, as you put it, accepts the burden wholeheartedly.

  2. Short Story writer Flannery O’Connor deserves mention here. George Weigel recently wrote “the intensity of Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic faith: an intensity that was unmarked by sentimentality, that was informed by an astonishingly broad reading in the Fathers of the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas, and that sustained her through many dark nights of the soul”. Far from absence of sentiment there was a profound undercurrent of emotive passion. “Thanks to her friend William Sessions [author, biographer and professor emeritus of English at Georgia State University] we have a prayer journal, a slim volume of fragments written in the years 1946 and 1947, when she was barely 22 years old. These prayers hardly fit 50 pages sans facsimile. They are closer to intimate knowledge of O’Connor than anything that has come before. On one hand, these prayers show us in startlingly innocent prose the beginnings of O’Connor’s enduring fixations: grace, virtue, one’s intellectual limitations. On the other hand, they explore something too hastily put aside by critics in favor of discussing her politics and Catholicism: the significance of emotion for O’Connor. She fleshes out the meaning of love in her prayers, and she shows herself to be unafraid of the vulnerability that comes with it. ‘Dear God,’ she begins in one fragment. ‘I cannot love Thee the way I want to. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You.’ Feeling was as important to her as intellect, perhaps because she felt farther from feelings than from her rational mind. ‘To feel, we must know,’ she wrote, ‘and for this we are dependent on God’” ( Jen Vafidis on Flannery O’Connor in the Daily Beast). Flannery’s insight is supported by Thomas Aquinas. “Aquinas addresses two aspects of the relationship between knowledge and emotion: in the first place, the question of cognition itself: is emotion to be thought along perceptive, even propositional lines? and the effect of emotion on our knowledge, its ability to render objects of knowledge more present to us”(Patrick Gorevan in Acta Philosophica). “Now the soul is drawn to a thing by the appetitive power rather than by the apprehensive power: because the soul has, through its appetitive power, an order to things as they are in themselves: hence the Philosopher says (Metaph. vi, 4) that ‘good and evil,’ i.e. the objects of the appetitive power, ‘are in things themselves’” (ST 2a 22, Ad 2)). We are inherently drawn to the truth of a moral act, the object which possesses its own intelligibility as good or evil by what Aquinas calls an interior sense, apprehensive, intellectual in that it involves understanding and the sensual in that it is understood as a ‘feeling’, emotive as in sentiment. “To feel, we must know, and for this we are dependent on God” (Flannery). Although by nature we apprehend moral truth it requires God’s gift of grace to assent.

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