I’ve crossed the Hellespont with Alexander, the Alps with
I’ve witnessed the awful battles of Cannae,
Not to namedrop, but I’ve befriended George Washington. And, let me tell you, he was hardly the saint I’d been told of. He was rash in his youth, and too often a bumbling fool as a military strategist. Nonetheless, his character and vision enabled him to lead an army of farmers to victory, and to guide many far-more brilliant men into founding a nation. This flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all
Deep in the heart of windswept
Ah, it’s those ideas and the questions that gave them birth that are immortal! I’ve long pondered how to reconcile the apparently conflicting notions of life and mortality, equality and liberty, individualism and community, dogma and existentialism, republicanism and federalism, reason and faith, idealism and pragmatism…. Perhaps wisdom comes with the recognition that, in this imperfect world, we can never find a happy balance between any of them. No, we must make do with tortured compromises, best guesses, callow mistakes, a panorama not of black and white but messy grays, and ultimately the realization that life is too often a tragedy.
Literature tells the story of this noble tragedy. And it’s by reading it that I, in one still-incomplete lifetime, have seen and done so much, met all those fascinating people, and confronted so many of life’s issues, most of them far beyond my own narrow experience. Literature enables me to touch immortality: to see the world through so many other people’s eyes, both living and long-dead, watch them face excruciating moral dilemmas; and, if I haven’t yet learned from their mistakes, perhaps I can at least one day accept my own failures more graciously.
Malcolm X reminisced how literature transformed his life as well, in prison. Curled up on the floor next to the bars of his cell, reading late into the night by the garish light down the passage, “I never felt so free in my life.”
And Thomas Jefferson warned of reading’s importance in a country like ours: “Democracy depends upon a nation that reads.”
You see, reading makes one both interested and interesting. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, one of a citizen’s most important responsibilities.
Which is why I learned recently with such horror of
Some day, many centuries hence, someone somewhere will read of this, and shake her head at the tragedy—but it won’t be a noble one.