When I went to college I had dreams of emerging with a broad-based liberal arts education – being schooled in the philosophies of Aristotle and Socrates, knowing fun trivia about Charlemagne, and having special insights into Picasso. I saw myself sitting in cafes with friends and waxing philosophical about the Middle East while sipping a customized caffeine dose. I suppose my model would have been Neal Caffrey of TV’s “White Collar” – sophisticated, street-smart, and stylish to a fault.
Four years later, and I didn’t get the education for which I was hoped. It turns out engineering isn’t friendly for exploring the humanities. So I found myself finished with higher education and unsatisfied with my knowledge of the great works that have shaped western culture. There was only one thing to do: take on the task myself.
In the months after graduation I attacked the local library – searching for literature that would feed my lust for understanding. I picked up a smattering of modern fiction, several notable films, and a few comic books (every culture has a mythology). But without direction my brute-force assault petered out and I found myself just watching a whole lot of television.
Then a friend suggested that I use Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind to create a booklist. Bauer’s method for self-education is far too cumbersome to be practical for someone like me, but her list of literature proved to be a helpful resource. After transferring the contents of her suggestions into a trusty spreadsheet, I returned to the library for Gulliver’s Travels and set sail for the Isle of Lilliput.
It does seem excessive doesn’t it? If this were just about making up for not having the college life I wanted, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Thankfully, the rewards are bigger than assuaging regrets. It’s about looking toward an ideal. There are many names for it: “tasteful,” “worldly,” “educated,” but they all boil down to familiarity with certain works of art. Why? Well, because in order to converse in the world intelligently it is important to know where we came from.
Today, there is such a glut of information available that no one person can master it all. So we have experts who keep up with this trend or that obscure branch of knowledge. But by being well-trained in one’s own culture, by seeing how the wheels of history turn, a person is given an informed perspective which may help them to approach new situations and questions. There is nothing new under the sun, and seeing the good and the bad of the past can prevent the modern man from becoming too alarmed by the tumultuous nature of the world’s affairs or repeating the mistakes of his forefathers.
On another tack, books and art are part of the natural progression from child to adult. At some point, a young person grows tired with the entertainments proffered by the TV/internet culture, and yearns for something with depth and substance. The mental journey to adulthood is like the college student who tires of wine coolers and ventures into Cabernet Sauvignon territory. This yearning should be met with new pursuits appropriate for their mental development – novels that don’t include vampires and poems that don’t follow a 5-7-5 pattern. The growing mind needs to be stretched and pushed like an athlete who has mastered basic drills.
I should note that this process is not about reaching snobbery but maturity. A snob covers his insecurity by claiming to only enjoy “high” art. A mature person is able to enjoy art on all levels. I know food gourmets who enjoy a good burger and fries – but they know Five Guys has a time and place, just like a bottle of champagne. Likewise a mature person does not look down on those who do not enjoy her acquired tastes but eagerly invites them to share in the joy that she has found. She accepts that not everyone will enjoy reading Moby Dick and thinks nothing of it.
On a spiritual level, enjoying good art leads to God. Great art like Picasso’s “Guernica” can create a state of awe that leads to worship. Something within the viewer creates a twinge of joy mixed with longing – but for something the longer knows not.
A friend once told me he thought that art was not necessary for human survival. True, a human being can eat, sleep, and work without it. But what kind of life is it to be devoid of all beauty? We are designed to create and enjoy it. Music, stories, and paintings are expressions of what it means to be human. They can cause the patron to experience the full range of human emotion – joy, anger, sorrow, pain, loss, optimism, even hunger! I survived my four years of college, but I felt like I was being pushed through a mold, like a man trapped in an ever-shrinking box. Reading Jane Eyre is about reinflating into my proper shape – restoring my lost humanity.
One particular area that I targeted was vocabulary, since engineers tend to lose their command of English during their education. As I navigated social classes with Elizabeth Bennett and dodged bullets with Henry Fleming, I made a point of noting every word that I didn’t recognize and adding it to my spreadsheet for later. Words have so much power, and by creating a bank of new ones to know and use, I am not just creating fun alternatives for vernacular phrases but am learning to differentiate between the intricacies of human experience.
Reading classics isn’t all fun and games. Sure adding esoteric words to my diction beats watching my cupcakes bake in the oven, but there are plenty of books I’ve struggled to get through – I’m looking at you The Red Badge of Courage. Wading through the intense psychological whining and self-justifications of cowardice was an exercise in discipline– I’m from the ADD generation after all.
The greatest effect of reading literature has been patience. In the world of school, a month is a long time and a year is a quarter of your lifespan. But in novels, Gulliver is trapped in strange worlds for years on end, Jane Eyre spends months away from her lover, and Oliver is estranged from Mr. Brownlow for weeks. All of these stories have (somewhat) happy endings, but it takes time for them to get there. The characters have things to learn along the way, friends to meet and ways they must change.
What drives me the most is that tired food maxim: “You are what you read, listen to, and watch. You are the lines you quote and the songs you sing in the shower. You are your afternoon daydreams and bathroom fantasies.” Wait, that’s not quite right. The point stands. The things we surround ourselves with will inevitably shape us. What will you let shape you?