Thoughts on six months of reading the classics


While Dick Clark was ringing in the New Year, I was celebrating the passage of the Well-Read Man Project’s halfway mark. It was six months ago that cracked open the virtual spine of my first of fifty electronic and paper classic books. While I still have six more months to look forward to in this quest, the journey so far has stirred up thoughts that have made the project worthwhile.

One of my biggest discoveries is that reading two hours per day is a lot of work. In my caffeine-dosed freeway-speed media-covered Southern California life, carving out a couple of hours of prime evening time for every spin of the earth is hard to do, especially with the rest of the family standing nearby tapping their collective feet on the cold floor. Some days, when I am in the middle of an especially boring so-called classic, I really want to click over to Netflix and tell the authors of antiquity to take up any gripes they have with Jack Bauer. But a promise is a promise, even if it is to dead white guys. And so I read.

Despite all of the insights it provides, reading is a lonely hobby. Not only is reading a solitary process, reading the classics must be done this way to provide the full effect. Book clubs exists, and some people have reached out to me to let me know they will join in this project with a book or two. But to get the most out of a book, it must be processed internally, in the secret recesses of the soul. The mind, it seems, is a tool with but a single handle.

A third discovery is that the 42-page-a-day habit is both too much and too little. At that rate, some of the deeper insights pass by too quickly for serious inspection. To get the most out of these books, a second, slower reading is a must, especially with the poetry and religious selections. But this speed also provides access to themes and inter-book links not readily accessible in detail mode. By reading Max Havelaar and Invisible Man quickly and in close proximity to each other, my mind automatically discerned the common elements between them despite their storylines dwelling on events half-a-world apart.

The next six months will draw out these experiences even more in my life. And as significant as these discoveries are, I am still anticipating the “aha” moment when I will finally understand the reading truths my literature teachers hoped to impart to me. My disappointment at never really understanding Albert Camus’ The Plague, despite getting a reasonable grade on a high school exam about the work, was part of the reason for starting this project. So far, I don’t see that I have gained the depth needed to grasp French Absurdist ideas at a glance. But if all I get from this project is a heightened awareness of the ideas that mankind struggles with, this year will not have been spent in vain.

[Image Credits: flickr.com/CCAC North Library]


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