Although I have always been bookish in about every sense of the word, I went through a “rebellious” phase in high school when my AP Literature class was required to read Dante’s Inferno. I was adamantly against it and now, as I reread it for the fourth or fifth time, I can explain away this opposition as perhaps being the fault of a poor translation. Possibly, it also had something to do with the fact that it Inferno not meant to be read in isolation; that popular engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins and ends with hell may be telling of some morbid modern imagination or revealing of a concerning preference for darkness rather than light. Whatever the case, though, I scoffed at Dante without giving him a fair chance and declared that the whole of Inferno was not much more than a fanfiction in which he cast himself as the star.
Although more nuanced now—having had the privilege of reading the Commedia under the Virgil-like guidance of a world-leading Dante scholar—my basic impression of Dante remains about the same. Laughing into my well-marked copy, I recall my first encounter with Inferno. Such an adorable young hypocrite I was! I belittled this great father of poets and—to think!—without Dante, my beloved Eliot would not have written!
As I mocked Dante for putting himself in a poem peopled with his favorite fictional and real-life heroes and villains, I was at the same time doing the same thing on a much humbler scale. You see, my first real attempt at a novel centers around a girl who is suspiciously similar to myself and who engages vividly in conversation with her favorite book characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Sherlock Holmes being among their eclectic ranks. As I wrote this long-since abandoned draft, I had to address the question which I now realize also occupied Dante: Why am I so compelled to document my own development in the context of people I know not only in life but through literature?
Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again, I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be: First of all, loneliness. It’s no secret that we introverts often prefer the company of a good book and likely Dante was similar. He was, however, also an exile, reading and writing apart from the home he loved. His Commedia was not only a product of his imagination but of his isolation. In reading and writing, we enter a community no longer bound by time and space. Just as Virgil is able to leap from history to lead Dante on a narrative journey, people from history, myth, and fantasy hasten to meet us in the pages of books. If we are willing, we can still talk to them as though they are flesh and blood, though we must summon them with paper and ink.
Our loneliness finds relief in the company of books, even those of our own making. By engaging imaginatively with the characters I loved most, my novel draft allowed me to get to know them more intimately and to incorporate them into my own little imaginative circle. Through reading and writing, my sense of community expanded vertically throughout time and horizontally across cultures, worlds, and even dimensions. Similarly, Dante incorporates a diverse cast of characters to regain community, to situate himself solidly within his own Italian cultural and historical context, as well as to establish himself in the continuation of a poetic-philosophical tradition.
My second hypothesis is a continuation of this idea. As relational creatures, we come to know ourselves through our knowledge of and interaction with others. A prominent theological emphasis of Dante’s Commedia is that the truest self-knowledge is attained not through stubborn individuality, but in the mutual humility of community and faith. Through his conversations with various people along his journey, Dante becomes more self-aware, ultimately coming to perceive the Triune God as the divine epitome of self-love and self-knowledge. In growing in relation to others and maturing in his consideration of God, Dante himself is remade.
Similarly, readers often piece themselves together through books, stitching words and stories into patchwork personalities. My outlook on life is lovelier thanks to Anne Shirley, my wit sharper thanks to Elizabeth Bennet, and I like to think I’ve gained some gumption from Scarlett. Reading is an act of self-reflection, considering ourselves in comparison to the characters and writers we most admire. Best of all, the books—and, of course, the Book—which disclose something of our own Author lead us to a greater knowledge of our identity as human beings made in the Image of God.
Finally, it seems that reading (and in turn writing about what we read) serves as moral formation, shaping our desires and decisions. Dante encounters many sinners in hell who, through their own devices, get exactly what they wanted. They loved stories that reflected their own flawed desires and pursued these to the bitter end, continuing to desire those same lowly things in death so that these desires fittingly become their chosen punishments. This is a negative example of bad readership. Using books to reinforce or justify vice is a discredit to discernment, that incredible gift of intelligence.
In Purgatory, however, tales and pictures of virtue are presented, spurring penitent souls to better love and pursue all that is good and true and beautiful. Many good books feature fallen characters; in fact, there would be no narrative conflict were all characters and situations wholly good and perfect. However, if we read like the redeemed souls Dante encounters, we will learn from the good and the bad in books. Through discerning readership, we can engage the whole breadth and depth of human experience without leaving our nooks, honing our ambitions and hopes without the inconvenience of real-life consequences. The more excellence we glean from books, the more attuned to truth and goodness our minds and hearts will become.
Rereading Dante now is supremely fitting. I know that I am not alone in being perhaps more lonely, more confused, and more in need of direction than ever. Dante, rather than providing an escape, has become a way of engaging my own isolation, wandering, and hope in faith and relationship. He has become a very dear literary friend—albeit a chatty one who I often wish would stop talking politics.
When Dante is lost and fearful in the first canto of Inferno, his favorite poet-philosopher appears to restore him to community and truth, and, through these, to himself. In the same way, rereading our own beloved authors might restore us to ourselves, just as talking to a close friend might bring us back to our senses. Engaging authors and characters-turned-companions provides company in loneliness, conviction amidst chaos, and, ultimately, a reminder of not only who we are but—if the books are good and true enough—who we are meant to be.
I return now to the notes I took only a few weeks ago when I once more met Dante at the gates of Hell: Through literature, we form productive relationships with those who thought and imagined before us, as well as those who continue to think and imagine beside us. If we, like Dante, engage in humble and eager readership, perhaps we will—unlike my AP reading list—transcend beyond the filthy babbling of Hell and look toward the radiance of Heaven. Dante may begin his epic in pride, placing himself alongside the best poets and thinkers of history, but, throughout the Divine Comedy, he allows their wise words—and, indeed, their failings—to instruct as well as inspire him, to help him develop not merely as a poet-turned-protagonist but as a human being on the journey of virtue and faith.
This, my dearest reader, is the essence of readership itself: to develop together as human beings toward the best and truest communication, community, and—when readership couples with faith—communion.