For the past few years, I’ve realized that too much of my reading life consisted of, well… junk. I normally make a point of abandoning any book (movie, music, etc.) that’s not working for me, anything I consider a waste of time. But often when I finish a work, I’ll think, “What was the point? What can I take away from this?”
Sometimes you just want to be entertained, and that’s fine. But I frequently found myself wanting something deeper. I started dabbling in the St. John’s College freshman reading list, trying not to get overwhelmed. (I’ve read 10 of those works during the past two years.) I began to read slowly, realizing there’s a lot in these books. My individual reading lacks what St. John’s offers in its seminars, and if you’re not familiar with the school and their curriculum, I encourage you to read more about it here and, if you’d like a deeper dive, here. I’m too old, too ill-prepared to pass the entrance requirements, and unable to afford the school, but anyone can read the books anytime. You’d save a lot of money, but you’d also be on your own.
Although it’s not the same method used at St. John’s, I am currently enjoying a journey through Dante’s The Divine Comedy, largely through a project called 100 Days of Dante. Although it (re)started in August, you can begin the project at any time at your own pace. You’re reading one canto at a time, then watching a short video (usually under 10 minutes) of scholars discussing the canto you’ve just read. The videos aren’t heavily academic, so don’t let any highbrow anxieties keep you from enjoying the work and the videos.
Just yesterday I watched a video on Canto 10 of Dante’s Inferno, the first book in The Divine Comedy. In this video, Dr. Jonathan Reimer (John H. Van Gorden Assistant Professor of History, Templeton Honors College, Eastern University) comments,
Hell is not, as Jean-Paul Sartre claimed, “other people.” On the contrary, it’s one’s field of vision collapsing to the point that all you can see is yourself.
I could spend hours contemplating that statement and its implications. All of the videos (at least so far) include such food for thought. That’s why Dante has been read and studied for centuries.
Classics such as The Divine Comedy, the works on the St. John’s reading lists, and more are so important. There’s a reason why they still hold up. They have so much to tell us. Yet that doesn’t mean you can’t keep reading popular works. I still do. But I have a problem with schools, libraries, and other institutions that remove classics from their shelves, either because they don’t feel those works are relevant or because they consider them problematic. Maybe they are problematic. If so, let’s have some conversations about them as we read them. Let’s discuss those problems. But let’s not be guilty of banning books. Freedom of expression is for everyone, even writers who lived in the ancient world.
I’m also currently reading a book called Art and Faith: A Theology of Making by Makoto Fujimura, which includes this blurb from the book’s jacket:
Makoto Fujimura’s art and writings have been a true inspiration to me. In this luminous book, he addresses the question of art and faith and their reconciliation with a quiet and moving eloquence. - Martin Scorsese
In his book, Fujimura discusses the importance of all the arts, not only art made by Christians, but by everyone:
As Christians, we can begin to sup on the feast to come, even though our vision of it is limited on this side of eternity. The arts - even as done by nonbelievers - celebrate this feast to come. Examples such as Isak Dinesen’s story “Babette’s Feast,” Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time all point to the feast, even as they depict fissures of trauma in the twentieth century. These artists remind us that “a great artist…is never poor” (as Babette states) and that we need music and theater not just for entertainment, but as a proven way to survive our traumas, even in the most severe trials, such as the Nazi concentration camps. Art literally feeds us through beauty in the hardest, darkest hours. (p. 34)
Classic works in any field can instruct, move, inspire, and more. They can also help us build community, realizing when talking to others who enjoy the same work with the same passion, that we’re not alone. To borrow from the famous C.S. Lewis quote, those moments can cause us to look at another person and say, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
I encourage you to delve into art, literature, film, music, dance, and more. Art matters. Let’s explore it and talk about it.