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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