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. 

The Bookworm’s Guide to the Galaxy: Understanding Readers

Most of my best friends are
bookworms. We all have our favorite genres, authors, eras, you name it. We are an eclectic group of athletes, honors students, writers, artists, musicians, and gamers, yet we are united by books and our need for words.

However, it has come to my attention that this is not how most of the world and its people are and that it mildly terrifying to someone like me, who can hardly carry on a conversation without quoting a book or alluding to a classic. I have tried to be less bookish when talking to non-readers, but seeing as I run a blog titled “A Bookish Charm” and have been caught on numerous occasions sniffing the pages of other people’s books (which is one than a little embarrassing), I have not really had success with this approach. Therefore, I have (because this is what a I do in my spare time…yet another bookworm problem) devised a list of ten ways for readers and non-readers (I suppose some might call them “normal people”) to understand each other and even become good friends. 🙂 (I should add as a disclaimer that I know and care for many non-readers and mean no offense as they simply are gifted in other areas.)

For Readers:

1. Know that people will ask you if you have seen the movie adaption of the book you are reading. Try not to be offended, even if the book is waaaaay better. (Of course, if you want to ask them if they have read the book that inspired the movie that they watched, go for it.)

2. Don’t abstain from showing emotion over the book you are reading in public, but don’t be surprised when people laugh as you sob over the tragedies of fictional characters. It hurts, but we just have to live with it.

3. Don’t ask non-readers to smell books. Just don’t.

4. Accept the fact that non-readers probably will not care that your characters are on the brink of disaster and your book is reaching its climax. Even if your company’s conversations are boring and you’d rather read during dinner, sometimes it is best to sacrifice a bit of reading to pretend you’re listening. After all, you can always wonder about the book while you smile and nod.

5. If you happen to be with a non-reader at the mall, understand that he or she may actually want to visit stores other that Barnes and Noble. Just prepare yourself that you will have to try on clothes and probably stop for a pretzel before you can go spend your entire paycheck on books you do not have room for on your shelves.

6. Try not to cry and break out in sarcasm when a non-reader claims to be a reader because she read Twilight and Divergent.

7. Do not try to explain that, based on classic literature, love and happiness are not real, because non-readers will think that you are depressed and pessimistic. We readers know that love and happiness do exist in the real world; we just are trying to discuss themes.

8. Try not to be disappointed on holidays when family members give you gifts other than books. They really are trying to be thoughtful, I promise.

9. Talk to real people. Do more than just hold up the cover of the book you’re reading when somebody asks what it is. Believe it or not, this person is trying to have a conversation with you.

10. Appreciate the fact that not everybody reads. Despite what Jane Austen says (“…who does not take pleasure in a good novel must be intolerable stupid.”) there are incredibly brilliant and lovely people who do not choose to be avid readers and we can still be great friends and perhaps we ought be better off because of it; their connection with the real world and our love for the worlds of books could just be a good combination. (Maybe…)

For Non-Readers:

1. Do not make fun of us for walking and reading, smelling books, and quoting them in our everyday lives. We will label you a “Gaston” and our book clubs will either scorn you or pity you.

2. Be gentle with us. Sometimes we are upset because of a fictional character’s death or an author’s failure to produce a satisfying sequel. Don’t tease us too harshly for getting so emotionally invested in fiction and we won’t tease you for shouting at sports on the television or cursing the politicians on the news.

3. Be aware of how we socialize. If we text you with a book recommendation or invite you to go to the bookstore, know that we like you. Perhaps a lot. It is just our nerdy way of showing affection; we are inviting you into our world of books and, even if you do not accept, you should feel honored that we like you enough to think of you in between chapters.

4. Just smile and nod when we make comparisons between books and real life. If I start rambling about somebody acting like a Scarlett O’Hara, just agree and say that yes, she is being annoying and manipulative. 😉

5. Read something. By doing this, you are proving that you care about us enough to attempt to share our passion for reading. We don’t care if you read every classic on the AP Literature list; we just appreciate that you read Harry Potter or even a magazine because it shows that you are trying to form common ground with us.

6. Ask us for recommendations. Even if you don’t read them and the carefully-crafter list we draw up for you ends up in a wad in your backpack, we love being asked to share our favorites and, like reading, this allows for some common ground.

7. Take us to a bookstore. This is the best way to get to know a bookworm. Let us wander the aisles and listen to us admire the new covers of our old classics. Don’t tell us that we do not have enough money for all of the books; just let us have our fun and after we inhale enough paper and ink, we might put down our stack of books we cannot afford long enough to chat about other subjects.

8. Recognize that we are more than the books that hide our faces. Sure, books are at the top of our list of favorite things, but they are not our entire personalities! Like I said before, my bookworm friends are athletes, artists, and scholars. We like other subjects, probably the same ones that you do, so don’t be afraid to talk to us about other things. We want to get to know you too, so tell us about yourself. After all, books and people are the same in that both have stories unique to themselves.

9. Don’t worry if we withdraw for hours by ourselves. We are fine, off on wonderful adventures between the pages of our books. It isn’t that we don’t like you; we just need time to ourselves and our beloved characters. Many of us are introverts, so just understand that if we don’t reply to your text or hear you calling us to come down for dinner, we are not purposely ignoring you, just resting by reading.

10. If we are stressed out, tell us to go read. In about an hour, we will be back to our normal, nerdy selves. 🙂

If you are a non-reader and read this far, know that you are appreciated by this awkward blogger for struggling through the rambling. And now, I shall bid you adieu, for I am in the library and feel a book calling my name…