A voracious reader, I see the virus restrictions not as a punishment but as an opportunity. Kids have a chance to read – not for a grade or to write an essay but to savor the reality a good writer has created just for them.
I remember as a kid being squired from our Loudoun County farm into DC to see Gregory Peck’s Moby Dick. I was 8, and the adventure into the big city was awesome. As was the whale. As was Peck’s Ahab’s being drowned by the monstrous, demonic white whale as Ahab’s harpoon rope had lashed him to the side of the whale as he harpooned his nemesis again and again.
Years later I read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or the Whale, based on a true event memorialized forever in Nathaniel Philbrick’s spell-binding nonfiction account In the Heart of the Sea. I can remember arrogantly stating that as good as Melville’s brutally long but unconditionally fascinating novel is, the movie is “just as good,” maybe even better than the (378-page eensy-weensy tiny print of) the novel.
When I finally matured (which was just recently) enough to assess what I had said, I was mortified: how could a just-under-two-hour movie do justice to a novel that was so brilliantly written that the reader felt the desperation of being at sea seemingly forever to capture some demonic entity that had arrested the heart and soul of the ship Pequod’s captain?
Great novels create for us a reality – and great nonfiction recreates for us a reality – we would never encounter elsewhere, and the splendid exhaustion one feels after wrestling with a classic is a feeling like no other. It’s like being with a significant other when the two of you first become enraptured: you never want the magic to end.
So, my wonderful Loudoun County students, heed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Books are for the scholar’s idle times,” but recognize and accept these times are idle – and a perfect time to resurrect the joy you must have felt as a youth when first employing the power of being able to read and seizing on that first sense-altering tome.
For me it was Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. Captain Queeg was very real to me and, as an athlete, I had to sneak away to find time to join the crew of the World War 2 destroyer-minesweeper The USS Caine. To say I was entranced by Captain Queeg’s anxious manipulation of the two tiny metal balls he rolls around in his fingers when his mental capacity cannot catch up to the reality he needs to face is the understatement of the century – and I was happily challenged – from the seventh grade on – to find symbolism in everything I read. Even when symbolism wasn’t evident, looking for it forced participation in the author’s artfully constructed reality I might not have encountered, much less enjoyed, otherwise.
Joseph Epstein in his brilliant essay “On Reading” contends that if an ardent reader reads an average of 2 books a week, he/she will consume 5,000 books in a lifetime – hardly noticeable when one considers an average year sees the publication of 60,000 books! And people say the digital age is killing reading. Nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the feel and smell and comfort of an actual book in one’s hands.
What might you read during this time away from the classroom? How about challenging yourself with the romantic magic of the unabridged, uncensored Tolstoy classic Anna Karenina? Or experience F. Scott Fitzgerald’s deliciously romantic The Beautiful and Damned, a far cry from the highly predictable mundane high school necessity of The Great Gatsby – which does, as in its unparalleled final pages, offer lyrical phrasing like no other in the English language.
Dip your toes in the eager sensuality of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (start with Swann’s Way) or immerse yourself – as I am presently doing in the syntactical artistry of Joyce Carol Oates, whose unnerving themes of souls’ desperations are surpassed in intensity (and, in a very real sense, insanity) by only Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men or Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”
Nothing wrong with a Grisham novel or a Stephen King horror story (Shawshank Redemption’s being the exquisite exception there), or a John Irving epic. Whatever allows you to escape your own reality for awhile and, perhaps, at the same time, enhance your understanding of the way the world works is legit.
The plea here is obvious: before the NFL and NCAA and NBA arrive with a vengeance, put down that controller for an hour or two every day – to savor the wisdom and excitement and pleasure that only reading can provide.