Wednesday, October 18, 2006


The giants of literature

I recently came across this great illustration in a children's schoolbook reprint of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (Ginn and Company 1914, illustrations by Charles Copeland). As I near the end of Charles Van Doren's The Joy of Reading, I feel like the little man on the ladder, peering across the modern void toward the great literature of the past - Watch that first step... At the same time, he's rather like a lookout in a crow's nest: Land ho! And he's so intent on reading that he hasn't bothered to retrieve his fallen hat.

Van Doren has me convinced that it has become necessary for me to read Euclid's The Elements, Milton's Areopagitica (his passionate treatise on the necessity of a free press; I have a nice old copy but have never read it), The History of Herodotus ("...full of wonderful, curious stories, many of which he knows are probably not entirely true - but, as he says, it would be a shame not to tell them, they are so interesting." p.215), Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, Thucydides, many others. Reading this book brings to mind one of the last formal classes I ever took - a humanities graduate seminar of my choice for a liberal studies M.A., the literature surrounding the Renaissance. I look back on that as one of the most valuable of all my classes in school, because it led me to and had me actively enjoying books I doubt I would have picked up otherwise (at that time, anyway). We read and discussed the work of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Erasmus, Thomas More, Cervantes, Marguerite de Navarre, Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Cellini. There were others, but it's been a long time, and these are what stick with me. Imagine, dead white guys and gals can be incredibly good reading! A fine lesson to learn any old time, but particularly in one's early twenties. Anyway, at that time in life I felt a lot like the little man on the ladder - books were beginning to loom large in my life and it was starting to sink in how important they would become to me. Huge. HUGE!

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