Early in my master’s program we read a bit by a guy named Xenophon, who shared a story about a young man named Euthydemus who prided himself on his knowledge. One day he meets Socrates and is determined not to “betray any admiration for the wisdom of Socrates” who begins to first tease him regarding his silence masking his arrogance (31). At first Euthydemus plays hard to get, but of course Socrates is able to draw him into a discussion first by probing into Euthydemus’ personal motives for his collection of books by old wise men. As Socrates questions the young man regarding his views of learning and what it means to be truly excellent, he deconstructs Euthydemus’ view of himself, particularly the image the young man has created for others to see. And then the very thing that always happens when a young man conversed with Socrates happens: Euthydemus realizes what he did not know. In fact, he says himself that he realizes he does not know anything at all, “and so he went away very dejected, disgusted with himself and convinced he was a slave” (37).
Xenephon points out that most young men in his position would be so humiliated, or angry, or both, that they would leave Socrates and avoid him. However, “Euthydemus guessed that, he would never be much account unless he spent as much time as possible with Socrates” and he never left him (37). In turn, Socrates began to teach him more plainly.
I once read somewhere that Plato said we would not be ready to learn until we were about fifty because that is about the age in which we realize we do not know anything. As much as those in education–public school, private school, home school, community college, and universities–may discuss having a teachable spirit, I have found that those are sometimes the very places in which it is the riskiest to admit that you do not know.
So, in the spirit of truly recognizing how much we have yet to learn, I’m providing a list of “10 Old Books I’d Like to Read or Read in Full–or perhaps more accurately ‘Books I’m Ashamed I’ve Yet to Read.'”
The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
You know those stories you read at a younger age in which you don’t fully appreciate what you’ve been assigned, and while you know you’ve read said literary work, you can’t actually remember it in the way you know you ought? And then when others reference the work with ease and familiarity, you feel your stomach knot up and your face flush because you’re an English teacher at a classical school–or worse, the other person is your mother and you were home schooled? (Yes, she still has that effect.) Does Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tale of Troy count?
The Aeneid is another story. Loved that one. Does that mean I’m biased towards the Trojans?
Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
So far, I can only say that I had to stop about halfway through Paradiso because I realized I needed an entire liberal arts education (of the true medieval flavor) before I would even begin to understand what Beatrice was saying. (Okay, so maybe I just needed to go back to Geometry. Something about angles and theology, and I didn’t know whether to feel like an idiot or a heretic.)
I understood Inferno just fine. Gorgeous writing, and humor and insight when I didn’t quite expect it. Even more so, after about three cantos of people in torment each night I’d fall into the best sleep I’d had in a long time. What does that say about my spiritual state?
Currently, I’m stuck about a third of the way up Mount Purgatory.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
For some reason, we (normal people at least) tend to only read parts of these. I feel a bit cheated…The Knight’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale (wrote a fun paper on those!) The Clerk’s Tale…not to mention a good excuse to explore medieval art and illumination…The Pardoner’s Tale–all a good mix of adventure, wisdom, and the down-right naughty…
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Yes, I had the audacity to write about this one before I’ve finished the entire work. (I did only write about what I’d read!) But beyond the obligation to read such a staple in classic literature, Milton himself has captured my interest with the beauty (or perhaps, to borrow a perspective from Longinus, sublimity) of his first few lines:
Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Or Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire….
That I to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. (lines 1-7, 24-26)
Plus, between this one and Dante, I’ve also developed a love of Gustave Dore’s engravings and illustrations.
Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by Samuel Johnson and
The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
One of my dear friends assigned these, or at least snippets of them, to her juniors, and they would always have tea and Scottish oatcakes. Given the reputation the Good Doctor holds in Western literature, I figure we should become better acquainted. (Besides, who doesn’t want to read about Scotland–or have an excuse for tea and a biscuit?)
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
This is one of the few instances in which I can say I’ve seen the movie(s) and a play (no, not the musical), listened to Focus on the Family’s radio drama, and I have a sick desire to play Madame Thenardier, but have yet to read the book (or see the musical). Isn’t that terrible? (Anyone want to donate tickets?) I’ve been waiting for years to tackle this long but beautiful story of redemption.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
When I visit people’s homes for the first time, I often read their bookshelves. It’s worse than checkout counter magazines containing so-called information I don’t even want to know or the cereal box that I may have read multiple times. I can’t not read words. If books are not available, I’ll read DVD titles, but they don’t provide the same thrill as lines of books. In fact, it’s better if I’m not the only guest, because then I can back out of the conversation and inch closer to the shelves with my head cocked, ear sometimes touching my shoulder.
Subsequent visits aren’t much better. It may sound ridiculously repetitive, a waste of time, to reread people’s bookshelves, but I do it anyway. (By the way, if you have the opportunity, read The Library by Zoran Zivkovic.)
I began reading the first chapter of Crime Punishment while house-sitting for some friends. It actually started with dusting the bookshelves, I think, and dusting bookshelves almost always leads to some strange form of energy shooting through my forearms and down to my fingers. If you’ve ever had restless leg syndrome, imagine that jerking sensation in your arms and hands when in such close proximity to books. Eventually you pull down a copy and starting reading with the same furtive glance as parents sneaking chocolate or cashews after the kids have gone to bed.
Somehow I ended up on my belly and had read the first chapter when I realized I wasn’t going to read the entire novel due to other literary commitments…
Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Southern woman with inclinations towards writing must have read William Faulkner.
Okay, so maybe I should include the fact that I find the first sentence to be one of the most captivating ones I’ve ever read–at least of the lengthy variety…
From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that–a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. (3)
Part of me is envious because I know I’d be corrected if I ever wrote a sentence like that, not just for the length, but for the lack of commas in places. I think I should try to diagram it one day.
Faulkner, William. Absalom! Absalom! Vintage International, 1986.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Edited by H.C. Beeching. The Great Books of the Western World, vol. 29, Edited by Mortimer J. Adler. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1990.
Xenophon. From Memorabilia, Book IV. The Great Tradition. Ed. by Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2007.