Insider Secrets for Reading Great Literature

Today I provide a roadmap for the course of this blog. Climb on the bus and I’ll show you some insider secrets for reading great literature.

A Syllabus for This Blog

BACK WHEN I WAS TEACHING in the college classroom, I began each semester by giving my students a syllabus for the course. The syllabus outlined the course as it would play out over fifteen weeks or so and let students know what to expect, hopefully making them breathlessly eager to get down to business. Recently, it might be a good idea to give you, dear readers, a similar kind of “roadmap” for what I have planned, so that you can see where we’re going and all the little side-trips are actually connected to the main topic, which is “how great literature forms our moral imagination and helps us become wiser.”

In my conception, what I want to offer on this blog is a free course in the advanced art of reading, especially (but not exclusively) reading great works of the Western tradition. It is intended not simply to offer interesting insights but actually to equip readers with skills and habits that will allow them to appreciate why “great books” are considered so great—and to enjoy reading them. What I will be offering are “insider secrets” that are seldom taught in any classroom, and probably have never been combined in the way that I will do so. These are things I’ve learned “the hard way,” gleaned from my experience not only as a student and professor, but also as an ordinary reader, a writer and a  translator.

Don’t worry, there will be no exams and no assignments, except insofar as I invite you to read along with me, ask questions, and take part in the discussion whenever you feel so moved. To “sign up” for the course, simply subscribe to the blog feed and newsletter (it’s free), but drop-ins are also encouraged. I’d like this to be more of a discussion course than straight lecture, so if you want to lurk silently, that’s fine, but I encourage you to ask questions or even raise objections, using the comment box on any post or the contact form linked at the top of the blog.

The Art of Reading

Reading well, widely, deeply, and with understanding is fundamental to maintaining and passing on the best of the Western cultural tradition and the modern societies that have grown out of that tradition. Most of these societies are currently in dire straits, and this is due, at least in part, to changes in the way we educate—failing to teach the great works of our tradition and how to read them with understanding and appreciation. And, since we cannot pass on what we ourselves do not possess, we adults must re-learn an appreciation for literature and the skills of active, perceptive reading that will allow us to pass along these skills and habits to younger generations.

To help my readers attain these skills and habits, I will both model and instruct: that is, I will show readers the higher-level reading skills that make “difficult” works a genuine pleasure to read, through both explicit instruction and by demonstration, as I discuss my own reading. These are things that few teachers, much less university professors, ever make explicit; most of them I had to work out on my own, and it took more than ten years as a student of “higher education” and twice that many as a teacher to understand just what it was that I had learned.

A Focus on Stories, Sacred and Profane

Everyone loves stories, because our minds are designed to make sense of the world through stories. If we understand the basics of what makes a story “work,” we open up all sorts of insights into great works of literature and the philosophical truths that they convey. I am particularly interested in stories that, for centuries, have helped readers develop their moral imaginations—i.e., their ability to learn truth through reading stories. I will focus on stories from the great Western literary tradition and will give a sense of how the historical development of this tradition has unfolded.

Recently I began teaching this syllabus with greatest of all stories, the Bible, the Author which is God Himself (the Eternal Word) and whose story spans all of human history. Not only is the Bible “the greatest story ever told,” but, because it is a unique book whose story is both human and divine, it requires  a special way of reading to grasp all that its Author intends us to learn. This way of reading is unknown to most modern readers, even many Christian readers, but reading (and interpreting) the Bible had a profound influence on the way stories were written and read for more than fifteen centuries. Therefore, it is helpful to understand this great Story first of all and then to see how the habits proper to Bible reading influenced subsequent writing (and reading), right up until the Protestant revolt radically changed Bible-reading and the Renaissance give birth to the modern age.

Although I start with the Bible, I will not neglect the great Graeco-Roman mythopoetic tradition (i.e., Greek and Roman stories, especially epic and Greek drama) which in their own way sought to pass on wisdom and contributed enduring riches to the Western imagination. (My series on stories of the Great Flood has begun this discussion, spanning more than a thousand years of the epic tradition.) Both the pagan (Graeco-Roman) and the Christian (Judaeo-Christian) strands of our Western literary tradition must be taken into account if we are to learn to appreciate medieval literature, as well as any later works that draw on our great literary history.

What About Modern Literature?

Since my focus is on reading stories that make us wiser by providing insight into the truth of the human condition, many of the modern works I will discuss will be those that retain some of the virtues of earlier, traditional “great works” even if they do not use the same forms. The literary form we call the “novel” makes a decided and intentional break with traditional ways of story telling (and reading), one that does not depend on any familiarity with the literary tradition. In fact, the name “novel” indicates that this is a form that breaks with tradition to tell stories in a new (“novel”) way. Novels generally are not written with the expectation of especially acute or “deep ” reading; for the most part, they tells stories that can be enjoyed in a fairly superficial way, although the better ones often have thematic depth.

Nonetheless, I will certainly discuss novels from time to time, but will make no particular effort to include modern “classics” or “important” novels–unless they happen to be ones that I particularly like and believe to reward re-reading. The works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, and Michael O’Brien, for instance, are always a delight to read and I always find something new in them. I also wish to revisit some of the popular-but-prophetic (dystopian) novels that I read when I was young, which warned me that one day the world would become as it (in fact) currently is. If only more people had actually read and heeded the warnings contained in stories such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

So, while I may discuss the way modern stories are told and suggest why some are better for us than others, I will not necessarily cover many widely acknowledged “literary classics” of the past two or three centuries. In the classroom, such works are taught because they are considered “important” in the development of the novelistic art rather than for any insights into the perennial human condition.

Topical Discussions Prompted by Reading

As I indicated in this post, part of the pleasure of being a “compleat Catholic reader” is treating our reading as the point of departure for many a mental meandering. Therefore, just as the best college lecturers occasionally ramble off onto interesting tangents, from time to time here on The Compleat Catholic Reader I may discuss other topics of interest that are sparked by my own reading. And to encourage readers to go off on their own mental ramblings, I may occasionally recommend online reading that offers useful insights into questions of the moment. In fact, I’ll gradually compile a list of online journals, magazines, podcasts, et cetera, that I believe would be of interest to my readers.

In addition to writing about literature, I’m also working on my own resources for readers, some of which will become available electronically at no cost to blog subscribers, while others I will eventually publish in print (and ebook) editions. If you want to know when the freebies become available, be sure to subscribe to this blog (see subscription links in the top menu and in the footer of each page). At present, for instance, I’m working on a special edition “reader’s edition” of Homer’s great epic tale, The Odyssey, with reader’s helps and hints that I hope will make this wonderful story accessible to readers who know nothing about classical Greek literature. A preliminary edition will be available as an ebook exclusively for subscribers of this blog.

A Separate Blog for Spiritual Reading

Originally, I thought I would also include discussions of spiritual works here on the The Compleat Catholic Reader; after all, it would be hard to be a “compleat Catholic reader” if one does not read spiritual works. In the end, however, I have decided to confine my focus here to “story books,” and to discuss spiritual reading on my other blog, called Learning God.

If you are interested in great spiritual classics, theological discussions of the Bible, or the importance of knowing how to “read” the story that God is writing in your own life, Learning God is where you will find them. There is a link to “my other blog” at the top of this one, and at the end of each entry of the Learning God blog you will find a subscription form. Even if you are already subscribed to The Compleat Catholic Reader, you should subscribe separately to Learning God if you are interested in those spiritual topics.

By the way, on Learning God presently I’m publishing, chapter by chapter (and commenting on) Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers, which is the shorter version of Dame Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. Eventually, I’ll be publishing my own edition of this beautiful little spiritual gem. You’ll also find some posts on another great spiritual classic from the English spiritual tradition, The Cloud of Unknowing, an unfinished series that I plan to return to.

So that is the general roadmap, which I will not always follow in a straightforward way. Every good trip, after all, should include the occasional unplanned excursion. But keep in mind these highlights of the road ahead.

• • •

Next on our itinerary, we will revisit our friend Joe Schmoe to see what kind of headway (if any) he is making on the Bible. Remember, Joe is an ordinary reader, relying on reading habits that he developed from reading novels to help him pick up clues to what the book of Genesis is all about. He hasn’t done badly so far, but I think he is about to realize that the key to understanding any work is context, context, CONTEXT.

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