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My heart, for instance, jumped when I recently re-read Dante Alighieri’s (whom a Texan friend refers to as “Danny, Ally, and Gerry”) The Divine Comedy, which title takes some brushing up against some intelligent folks to comprehend. I liked Dante, but he led me to read Virgil (whom the urbane spell as Vergil), who wrote the even more noble The Aeneid. Virgil beckoned me to begin again with the great epics from Greece, Homer’s The Iliad and his even better The Odyssey. I read the Oxford History of the Classical World chapters on Homer first. That made me want to read the next chapter, the one on Hesiod and Myths, which led me to read Theogony and Works and Days, and so on. Virgil, Homer, and Hesiod – a pagan’s trinity mediated in priestly fashion by a Roman Catholic (Mr. Alighieri, I mean). Wonderful books, breathtaking grasps of the relationship of the human and the divine, bold and brazen in their attempts to wrap their minds around life as they experienced it. They charm in their depiction of tragic characters – like Agamemnon sulking in his boat, or Ajax angry enough to take on a Troy, or Zeus so ticked off by human effrontery that he conspires to send them all to Hades. Hesiod stands a bit short next to the other two tall drinks of water, but he stands proud. (And he’s not chipped at all.) Sophocles didn’t get enough of Ajax in Homer’s epic, so he made up some more and put in plain (Greek) prose the enormity of his pride and added some creases to Ajax’s forehead of worry about glory: so devastated was he in not getting the arms of Achilles at his death that he buries his sword point up and falls on it. The story is gory; but the theme is larger than life, and so Homer and Sophocles have pinned a flower sustained by ambrosia on Ajax’s shield. What we do learn about life from Ajax was stated by the Irish writer, Frank O’Connor: “The leader is a man so great that he [unlike Ajax] doesn’t have to be jealous.”
This drifting from one author or book to another is desultory reading, and is exactly how reading occurs for me. The knack, if you want to hit on the greats of history (or indulge the vanity of sounding intelligent), is to read the right books, listen to their connections, and come to know, as only readers come to know, the author himself (which in the names so far have been males, but read on). J.D. McClatchey, in his introduction of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, says that Millay “wrote from the bedroom, not the library.” I know (popular) writers who seem to write from the living room, or the kitchen table, or even the summer vacation cabin, but great writers set pen to paper in the library and know the discussion, like the Delphic oracle, whereof they speak.
How might you find the greats? Some will give you lists, as did Mortimer Adler, who designed with Mr. Ego Robert Maynard Hutchins The Great Books of the Western World. On campuses today, their efforts are an effrontery to the politically correct who think for every male you read there is a corresponding female. There just might be, but I find tallying of that sort to be a kick in the shin of intelligence. My sort of reading is too drifty and restless to worry about the niceties of trends. Besides, one of my favorite (female) writers, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, once said, “What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.” Let me quote her again: “Indeed, it is my experience that both men and women are fundamentally human, and that there is very little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general.”
I may never end her exasperation, but I do worry about finding the greats. Jacques Barzun has four intersections each great must pass in order to arrive safely home: thickness, adaptability, votes, and academic discussion. Perhaps he’s right; I would emphasize that the greats bring intense pleasure in their reading (and, this must not be forgotten, their re-reading). But, I have discovered one sure-fire method of finding the best books in a bookstore, or what the Romans once called taberna libraria. Go to Barnes and Noble on a Friday evening, just after dinner, and find the least inspected shelves, and there you’ll find the greats. People, from the looks of the store, read stuff by John Grisham and Robert Atkins and Tim LaHaye, but there is no shelf-pull toward Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne – and here we pass into the age of first names – Ben Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Jean Jacques Rousseau, J.W. von Goethe, Robert Louis Stevenson, or even those as recent as G.K. Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Sayers, James Thurber, E.B. White, George Orwell, A.J. Liebling, Isaiah Berlin, Flannery O’Connor, Joseph Epstein, Umberto Eco, Edward Said, Lionell Trilling, Nancy Mairs, Joan Didion, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Faddiman, V.S. Naipaul, or Merrill Joan Gerber. Pause for a minute with these writers (both men and women for the tally-minded). You’ll find their prose siren-like, their topics humane and urbane, and their angles clever and insightful. And sometimes they are just plain fun to read. I am a sucker for the witty, and find myself wandering into the writings of James Thurber and Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman and Anne Lamott.
There’s that joie de vivre in the former sorts, too – well, perhaps not in Mencken for he was more intent on scoring points. As Terry Teachout has shown in his superbly written biography of Mencken, that man’s sturdy pen had a sharp, serrated edge, and it began with his after-breakfast cigars. It was Mencken who delighted in blowing (cigar-infested) fumes of cynicism on simple souls of faith. When speaking of the soul and the claim that it separates humans from beasts, Mencken fumed: “Well, consider the colossal failure of the device. If we assume that man actually does resemble God, then we are forced into the impossible theory that God is a coward, idiot and a bounder.” Let’s not follow his gaseous thought any further, for a few gulps of straight Mencken is plenty for the day. Instead, let’s admit that places in the bookstore where most people stand have books that tell good stories (people are buying them for a reason), and reveal secrets for living for the next week or so. But I’ve yet to find those authors struggle with life and death, with meaning and purpose, or with questions like “Who am I?” or “Who are we as a ‘we’?” or “What is God like?” and “How might I know God?”