Befriending Dante: A Reflection on Readership

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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. 

Dystopian Reality

Dystopian novels have been “in” for several years now. The Hunger Games and Divergent were the most popular reads of my high school days. Brave New World, 1984, and Anthem were on the AP reading lists. I continue to devour Ray Bradbury’s work.

However, we forget the purpose of dystopian fiction, which is to warn and protect us from creating such futures in reality. Dystopian fiction remains fiction only so long as we read and heed these books as warnings, not merely as disturbingly entertaining tales.

While we continue to be shocked by the dystopian stories we read, we are at the same time allowing ourselves to fall into them. By labelling them as “fiction” we are separating them from our reality and from our future. We feel terror and disgust as we read them, but can easily brush them aside as “mere stories” once we close the covers.

Ray Bradbury once said,

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

As much as I’d like to say Bradbury is inerrant, I would like to alter this statement ever so slightly for the sake of clarity:

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop believing them.”

As soon as we assure ourselves that dystopian societies are just monsters created by authors, they lose their power to prevent us from growing into such societies. The moment we begin to read these books as fiction, when we stop believing that such horrors and degeneration might be possible, is the moment we begin to descend into dystopia ourselves.

images-1.jpgIf children were to read the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel as merely a story that could not possibly have any truth to it, the preserving concept of “stranger danger” loses its impact. We cannot read this story to children without explaining its moral and begging them to heed its lesson.

In the same way, adults cannot read dystopian novels simply as futuristic fairy tales; we cannot consume them only for their shock and entertainment value. Rather, just as we would hope that children learn caution from Hansel and Gretel, it is our duty as responsible readers to learn an even greater caution from stories such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Hunger Games. 

It is of even greater importance now in 2017 than when these stories were originally penned, even if that was not long ago. We already have turned deaf ears to the warnings of these stories and are already reaping the consequences as we slip into dystopia.

Consider the following: 

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 Remember the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins? We were bothered by them for their selfishness, their vanity, their degenerate morality, and their obsession with entertainment. But are we equally concerned by such lifestyles in reality? Or do we shudder at them between pages and then act as they do in our own lives without even realizing?

download-2In The Giver by Lois Lowery, another YA dystopian novel, babies who are not up to standards are “released.” I remember my friends and I crying over this chapter in elementary school. Yet now so many former young readers champion the killing of the pre-born because of detected health problems, special needs, or simply because the child is unwanted. How can we justly promote in reality the things of which we once read with sorrow?

download-3Fahrenheit 451 is fairly explicit in its message (Bradbury makes no attempt at subtlety -bless him). Yet while we read of the death of literature, we retreat without a thought into cheap entertainment as soon as we finish the book. Worse, we ignore his clear warnings and are happy to glean our information through soundbites and social media blurbs rather than through thorough reading, considerate conversations, and serious thought. Are we, too, mindlessly “watching our stories” without discernment or contemplation?

fullsizeoutput_161Perhaps the most shocking dystopian novel I’ve read is Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). At least, it was shocking when I read it four years ago. Now, it feels rather ordinary. (Has the world really fallen so far in four years? Perhaps I am simply older and sorrowfully wiser.) As I read this book, I was horrified at the unrestrained sexuality of it; most characters sought only their own pleasure, cared nothing for relationships, and procreation was a thing of the distant past. But is this so far different from today? We find ourselves living in a generation that boldly protects promiscuity and demands consequence-free pleasure while conservative approaches to relationships are scorned as old-fashioned.

download-4.jpgAyn Rand’s Anthem centers on a character called “Equality 7-2521.” Everyone is equal, but, ironically, no one is free; every member of the society is equal to the extreme that none of them may differ from others. Today, are we perhaps striving for a dangerous equality like that of Anthem? We must certainly protect and value all people equally; however, Anthem warns against forcing equality of thought. Although we read this warning, do we follow it? The minute someone expresses an idea that we consider offensive, are we quick to aggressively silence him or her rather than admit that we all have the right to think freely?

I am not saying that everything in these dystopian novels will come true, but they are not nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed. Certainly I do not expect America to be divided into factions or our teenagers to be sent into battle against each other or for us to mate according to selection by governors. However, there are undeniable dangers to reading dystopian novels as fiction, just as there are dangers to ignoring the morals of fables and fairy tales.

We ought to read dystopian books as seriously as we read history books. It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and so we diligently are set to studying history from the minute we enter school. We also are encouraged throughout our school days to read dystopian stories, but we must not be satisfied with reading them as mere fiction. Rather, we must read them with the discernment and diligence with which we study history. It is imperative that when we read dystopian books, we read with great awareness of their relation to reality so that we are not, like poor history students, doomed to live them.

 

Graveyard Library

Upon finishing up my finals and juries today, I found my mind in a muddle, so I did the natural thing: I went exploring. In doing such, I happened upon a cemetery and spent a great deal of time wandering and wondering. To any outside observer, I was just another a college girl in an ugly Christmas sweater creeping around for no apparent reason, but really, I was researching. After all, one can learn- or at least imagine- so many things in graveyards, most of which are, surprisingly, more poignant than frightening. And, as many writers would agree, inspiration is always to be found in such places. For example…

 

Graveyard Library

I went walking through a library.

Well, a graveyard actually.

But both are full of tales,

And wandering down the aisles- or trails-

I read the spines of leather-bound tomes,

Or, rather, faded tombstones.

Between the lines (or dates)

I am left to guess the fates

Of the characters once living.

 

Over here on my left,

Paule Walde lays at rest.

But why so apart from his wife?

Marie Walde is right there

Though it seems quite unfair.

Where their stories separate in life?

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Susie Harlem “mother”

And beside her another,

With a stone more elaborate than she.

Was this other loved better

Or simply loved richer?

How small Susie’s script seems to be.

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And Shirley Ann Southern

Whose time came too sudden,

Plucked like the daisies that bloom here.

She stayed only a day,

In 1940 May.

How sad yet sweet this short page dear.

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Shirley’s would-be playmate

Naps a few yards away.

Beneath a lone fragile sapling.

Its leaves laugh in the wind

But cannot grief amend.

A short poem, barely a scribbling.

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Then James of Scotland and

Janine of Switzerland-

Only a marriage date printed.

Why no mention of death?

Do they yet use their breath,

To write a love uncompleted?

.

Then there’s a poor sister

And as she’s the elder,

Waits for her sibling patiently.

But the girl above ground

Tired of hand-me-downs,

Will finish her sequel separately.

.

Miss Charlotte was likely

The town’s brightest beauty.

For without fail as the years pass,

Bonny blue wildflowers

Same as those eyes of hers,

Peak up from the parchment of grass.

.

Strange indeed it might seem

Of all places to dream,

Libraries and graveyards are best.

But both only will grow

As time in its course flows.

And beneath covers and earth

Lies the past.

 

The Importance of Being Literate  

We live in a world of hashtags and texting abbreviations; gleeful laughter has been replaced by “LOL”,  “carpe diem” has been killed by “YOLO”, words are being replaced by numbers 4 heaven’s sake! (That was painful, but consider my point made.) It seems I cannot go through one day without being confronted by enough grammatical atrocities to make entire graveyards of authors flip in their coffins. Just yesterday, for instance, I was looking for some insight on symbolism in Dracula and nearly fell out of my chair when I came across this question on Yahoo:

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But all of this conventional chaos is really just mildly annoying in the grand scheme of things; what makes me sad is that the people who are guilty of these word crimes have the opportunity to read and write, to explore the shelves of libraries or buy books at the store, to go to school and learn the fundamentals of language. What makes me sad is that these people, for the most part, have the opportunity to sharpen their literacy skills into tools for effective communication, but do not, simply to save a few text characters.

Many people do not have this opportunity.

32 million American adults, in fact. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/06/illiteracy-rate_n_3880355.html)

Why? Poverty, broken homes, insecure social situation, etc. Do Something, an organization that seeks to involve teenagers in reaching out to other teens in need, has a list of the top eleven causes of illiteracy in America, which I highly recommend looking into:

https://www.dosomething.org/facts/11-facts-about-literacy-america   logo

But why should we care? Not being a bookworm never hurt anybody, right? WRONG. So wrong that I broke my commitment to proper conventions and used all caps. Studies show that illiteracy is associated with crime, substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, and poverty. Again, the link above provides excellent information on the effects of illiteracy.

There is another reason to care about promoting literacy, a more personal reason that I fear some may “LOL” at scornfully. It is that literacy is freedom: freedom from ignorance, freedom from helplessness. If you doubt me, just think for a moment of every great epoch in the history of humanity: words were there to propel mankind forward. John Locke’s philosophical writings changed the way we view government, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” marked a turning point in the Civil War, Shakespeare set the precedent for entertainment through the centuries, Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” sparked the Protestant Reformation, Upton Sinclair saved society from impure food, C.S. Lewis revolutionized fantasy. From the first clay cuneiform to the Egyptian hieroglyphics to the Torah Scrolls to The Federalist Papers to Harry Potter. Words were- and are- there, giving flight to our imaginations, strengthening our beliefs, and preserving our ideas. If this doesn’t convince you of the necessity of literacy, perhaps this quote will:

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” – Frederick Douglassb_359ae7827c956d90a4946a8711c13635

By the way, the author of that quote? An African American slave who learned to read and not only escaped slavery, but went on to become one of the most influential authors and abolitionists in American history.

If my words have resounded with you as I hope that they have, I encourage you to take action to promote literacy, whether by volunteering as a tutor, donating to a charity such as Do Something, or even just lending a book to someone in need. The DoSomething.org site has further tips for getting involved in the fight against illiteracy, as well as Grammarly.com at the following link:  http://www.grammarly.com/blog/2014/promote-literacy-with-grammarly/

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Call to Serve a Different Master

“Tom read,—”Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
“Them’s good words, enough,” said the woman; “who says ’em?”
“The Lord,” said Tom.
“I jest wish I know’d whar to find Him,” said the woman.” 
― Harriet Beecher StoweUncle Tom’s Cabin

 

The woman in this excerpt from one of the most powerful pieces of American literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did eventually find the beloved Lord of Whom Tom spoke. Her character, downtrodden and despised, could not at first fathom the presence of a merciful Redeemer in the midst of slave quarters and she certainly could not believe in a Heavenly Master under the looming threat of her perverted earthly master. However, through the simple and incorruptible faith of the title character, Uncle Tom, she was purchased through grace and faith; while her physical body might be sold to another master, her immortal soul was secure in the scarred hands of her Savior.

This theme of eternal salvation triumphing over sinful oppression was woven throughout the entirety of this not-entirely-fictional novel to expose the evils of a legal system of slavery and the dehumanizing effect it had on both slave, corrupted under the hard hand of cruelty, and master, corrupted by limitless power. The main characters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin illustrate this as Mrs. Stowe examines each of their lives and subsequently forces the reader to adopt a stance on the obvious issue of slavery, as well as what she paints as the more dire issue of faith and righteousness.

The first set of characters we encounter are pushed to run away from their bondage in order to preserve their marriage and family, indicating that slavery was a man-made institution that ruined the holy institution of the family and therefore, slave owner were guilty before God for tearing apart what He had joined together. These characters found their redemption in Canada and, I was pleased to read, lived happily for the remainder of their days.

The next character, in a way, achieved an even higher level of freedom. Uncle Tom is described from the first as a “man after God’s own heart” in total contrast to those society perceived as above him. Born into slavery, sold from his family, beaten, bruised, and rejected, he seemed only to be pitied, but never did he allow his countenance to fade or his faith to swerve. He had nothing in the end except the thankfulness and love of the lowly and the grudging respect of his oppressors. His character parallels the Lord whom he served and, like this Suffering Savior, he laid down his life to protect those he loved with nothing but forgiveness and praise on his lips. (There are so many parallels to the life and crucifixion of Jesus that I could point out, but this is only a blog post, not a commentary.) He did not reach Canada or receive the liberation promised by kinder masters, but the author leaves no question that Uncle Tom found freedom and victory in a better land.

The lives of the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are, at their most basic interpretation, examples to expose the atrocities of the American system of slavery. But, if we truly read the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe, we will find that there is a message of hope and repentance applicable in any age, even today. Slavery has long been abolished, but how often do we find ourselves hopeless, struggling, fearful, prideful, or abusive in word, deed, or thought? The convicting insights of this book are timeless and serve as a call to righteous action that, like the prayers of dear Uncle Tom, can never truly be silenced, for their impact is manifest across the nation and its generations.