The Reading Room: Drowning in Books
By Florian Gargaillo (LA), Contributing Writer
A student’s life, it seems, is defined by the breadth, size and bulk of his or her bookshelf. This very day, you may find yourself having to read a hundred pages of theory for a music class on Beethoven, a myriad of articles for a sociology class on Latin America or even a towering pile of volumes for a history class on World War II; yet unless you take an English course, there are very few opportunities in which you will find the time to open the pages of a novel or a play, let alone a book of poetry. Reading literature amidst our busy lives has become a question of entertainment, and when it comes to entertainment, any book will do. But in doing so we may come to forget the boundless gift that the best works of literature can offer us and why reading matters — why we do, or should, read.

We as humans are spiritual creatures — not necessarily in the religious sense, though there may be an aspect of that for some, but rather in the ability to experience an intensity of emotion that takes us out of ourselves, the kind of emotion that lends not only pleasure but also a sense of meaning and clarity to our lives. Thus, books play a central role in this spirituality. We all recall passages in great books that lift us to heights that are, indeed, akin to the religious.

At times we might be tempted to see aesthetic beauty as a hollow ornament — a coat of paint over the true, deeper meaning of a text. But there is something to be said for the unabashed quest for beauty — literature thrives and breathes through it. Who hasn’t ever fallen under the spell of a perfect flurry of words, a sweeping paragraph, a scintillating turn of phrase? The spark and rhythm of a line of verse, the spirit and the soul of a character, the dreaminess or the terror of a majestic landscape — these are things that should be treasured and kept close to the heart.

At the same time, books populate our minds with a host of characters that are at the same time just as real and far more real than we could ever hope to be. Even those who have never read the books in question live under the shadow of Hamlet, Don Quixote and Werther. They inhabit our world and affect the way we think about it, even when we are not conscious that they are right there over our shoulder. They make our lives beautiful. You could easily fill a library with all of the criticism written about Shakespeare’s Cleopatra or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, yet none of it can explain away the power that these dark ladies hold over each new reader lucky enough to encounter them.

They are a reflection of our most secret, inner selves, which is perhaps why the act of reading is nearly always a solitary pursuit. They confront us with visions of humanity that may enchant or disturb us but always in one way or another provoke us to think about ourselves and our place in the world. We all experience love at one point in our life, but isn’t our understanding of love somehow deepened and made greater by the wildly different love stories of “In Search of Lost Time,” “Romeo and Juliet” or Keats’ poetry? It’s not that we should simply swallow every word spoken by Romeo or Swann as gospel truth, but rather that these characters taken together with their companions create a greater world in which we can articulate our own doubts and find a way out of the maze that life has built around us and our hearts.

This does not mean reading the greatest works has to be boring. The best books bring pleasure; the best books are vibrant and alive; the best books are still “the best” not because they have become prototypes of their age but because they are still exceptionally original 20, 40, 500 years after they were first published. We read “Dorian Gray” not because he shows us the corrupted aristocracy of Victorian England but because Dorian Gray — whether we want to admit it — is us. In the same way that Faust and Huck Finn and Lady Macbeth are all us, and Captain Ahab is us and Othello is us, Achilles and Frankenstein and Heathcliff are all, in their own unique way, us.

You might argue that choosing “the best books” is arbitrary; that what one person might call a classic might also be labeled trash by another. Yet we all do have a sense, deep down, of what the strongest works are. They are the works that have stood the test of time beyond the lifespan of any one human being; they are the works that speak to us beyond the boundaries of time, place, age and gender. It does not take any qualifications to read the best works, nor does it necessitate living in the author’s century. It only takes an eye and an ear and a willingness to take in the words on the page. That is where the magic happens — when the words awake a sensation in you that takes you out of this world and into something wonderful, on a winding road out of the maze.

Issue 14, Submitted 2010-02-15 18:38:53