The Merits of Reading vs Having Read: A Reflection on Enjoying the Classics
I’ve sometimes seen a contrast made between the desire to read (positive) and the desire to have read (negative). Generally the point is to affirm the value of the reading experience over against just ticking off one more Great Book (or Popular Book) on their reading lists. Does this contrast hold?
On the one hand, the bucket-list approach to reading is problematic. Until I was in my early late 20s, I felt compelled to finish every book that I began, with the result that I slogged through a lot of boring, irrelevant, badly written books. There was no up-side to this, other than a sop to my own ridiculous pride as a persevering reader.
When I learned to put down books that no longer held my interest or attention, I became a more appreciative reader. With my mental palate no longer dulled by frequently having to plow through a sub-par book, I learned to savor what I was reading more fully. I began genuinely to enjoy poetry, and more fully to appreciate the quality of excellent prose.
On the other hand, however, I have discovered that there are significant exceptions to the rule that I should set aside books that I am not actively enjoying.
There are certain books that I do not particularly enjoy reading, but that turn out to have tremendous value in my having read them.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is, hands down, one of the most important things I’ve ever read, yet I can’t say as I’ve ever enjoyed reading it – not exactly. I first encountered it in high school and did not understand what I read. Nonetheless, Dante got under my skin, as it were. I kept coming back to it, re-reading parts of it, never the whole thing. Dancing with it: drawing near, pulling away. Then a couple of years ago I finally read through the whole thing, canto by canto.
It took months – not because I was deliberately savoring it, but because I wasn’t enjoying it very much… at least not in the way that I tend to define enjoying a book. I would read a canto at a time, sometimes forcing myself to finish reading and not put the book down mid-canto. And when I was done, I realized that I had experienced something of genuine importance, something that happened to me without my conscious awareness.
Dante gives me something deeper and richer than an enjoyable reading experience. He furnishes my imagination with imagery that is too powerful, too rich, for me to appreciate when I first read the words. He gives me insights into my own spiritual journey that I have to unpack over time – and he gives me the language to do it.
The dark wood, the wolf and leopard and lion that bar Dante’s path upward; the long, slow slog through Hell; the frozen heart of Hell; the glimpse of stars as they emerge on the other side, into Purgatory; the garden that Dante finds atop Mount Purgatory; the constant dance and movement in Heaven; all these and many more are images that stay with me, and come to mind when I need them. All these come from the Divine Comedy — from having read it, even though it has not yet moved me deeply while I read it.
And so the Divine Comedy is, I recognize, a lifetime book for me. I re-read it all the way through for a second time, and (in parts) a third time. And I’ll do it again, and again.
Having had this experience with Dante, I recognized it when it occurred a second time. I recently decided to re-read Spenser’s Faerie Queene – or, more accurately, to re-read Book 1 and read for the first time Books 2-6. I had read Book 1 when I was a teenager – I picked up a used copy at a yard sale thinking it was a fantasy novel – and though I understood little of it at the time, something in it gripped me imaginatively. My memory of reading it was of tiny jeweled scenes, disconnected yet bright. I thought that coming to it as an adult would be a delightful experience.
Well, no. I soon discovered that I didn’t enjoy reading The Faerie Queene the way that I had hoped. It was (and is) a challenge to keep reading in a sustained way. After a few pages, I inevitably put the book down. Just as inevitably, a day or two later I pick it up again. There are exciting bits but this is not a page-turner; rather, its power is in the richness of the images and the meaning that they carry.
The images are like those of a medieval tapestry, bright with jewel tones of red, blue, green, gold. Because The Faerie Queene is an allegory, the concepts that Spenser handles begin to be imbued with the rich color and brocaded grandeur of the images used to convey those ideas. Courage, chastity, generosity, temperance – having read Spenser, these words acquire a new depth of flavor and color and texture.
I will continue to read The Faerie Queene, with joy – not because I expect to enjoy the reading at that moment (although I see already that I am learning to enjoy it more as I go), but because Spenser, like Dante, is furnishing my imagination, and oh! with such marvelous things!