Sunday, May 5, 2013

How to Stop Reading and Enjoy Your Life

If you ever hear anyone speak worshipfully about the warrior Achilles, there's a good chance he's a scholar: a lifelong academic with good language skills, a coffee addiction, and three degrees.

But people like this live less like Achilles than anyone else. Achilles loved his friend to the point of slaughter and death, burned with energetic youth, and laughed at cowardice. He never touched a book. He never painstakingly learned an ancient language. He never sat still for two hours in a hot room, teaching a flock of restless nineteen-year-olds.

Not a conjugation in sight.
Students of history and literature face a fundamental problem. Cloistered in comfortable universities, they face few of the problems and passions of the outside world. And this isolation makes them lose sight of the point of their studies: to understand those very problems and passions. So instead of drinking parties devoted to plumbing the mysteries of love, we get dry "symposia" on sexuality in 13th-century Thuringia. Instead of the ROTC, we get 350-man lectures on "War and the Nation State." Instead of open nudists, we get tie-wearing history majors presenting their discovery that modesty is only a Victorian neurosis.

I don't mean to suggest that there's no value in reading for its own sake. I'm the one, after all, who advocates a heavily classicist curriculum. It's fun, interesting and useful to read old books in old languages. But there are more things in life than reading, and in any case, to really take the classics seriously, we must live lives outside the library. The best reader has felt the rage of Achilles, the madness of Saul, and the longing of Orpheus.

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