Saturday, July 04, 2015

My summer formula for acquiring wisdom

This has already become an unforgettable summer: two consecutive days of 100-plus temperature even before the Fourth of July, which is when normally the warming trend begins in this paradise.  The head aches, the body is tired, and the prospect of more heat is not thrilling.

The cooling down to the low 90s next week, which will still be way higher than normal, is not the only reason that I am looking forward to the days ahead.  It is also because the books that I have ordered for my summer time deep reading will arive.

A few years ago, I decided to read some of the great literature pieces, including some that I have already read.  As I recall, the list has now included Fathers and Sons, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Invisible Man, The Sun Also Rises, Catch-22, A Farewell to Arms, Sartre's plays, The Time Machine, Kafka's short stories, 1984, ... I am lazy to look up my blog-posts and list them all ;) The re-reads were as exciting and humbling as were the new ones.

I am mentally salivating when thinking about the list this time around:


I read Lolita when I was way young.  I am sure I missed out on a great deal of understanding about the world when I read it before I experienced the world.  Further, re-reading is good, as Nabokov himself said:
Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.
Why do I read these classics that have stood the test of time?  Simple: they help me arrive at my own understanding of what it means to be human, and how I fit into this universe.  How does that happen via great literature?
It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior. But we live with Anna Karenina from within for hundreds of pages, and so we get the feel of what it is to be her. And we also learn what it is like to be each of the people with whom she interacts. In a quarrel, we experience from within what each person is perceiving and thinking. How misunderstandings or unintentional insults happen becomes clear. This is a form of novelistic wisdom taught by nothing else quite so well.
It is an awesome experience because "Empathy is not all of morality, but it is where it begins."  I still remember how devastated I felt as A Farewell to Arms came to an end.
Many disciplines can teach that we ought to empathize with others. But these disciplines do not involve actual practice in empathy. Great literature does,
I begin to understand that we humans are complex beings.  Cultures and histories and genders and everything else matter.  
We all live in a prison house of self. We naturally see the world from our own perspective and see our own point of view as obvious and, if we are not careful, as the only possible one. I have never heard anyone say: “Yes, you only see things from my point of view. Why don’t you consider your own for a change?” ... We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently.
You can see why I am looking forward to the deep reads for this summer.  I am sure I will blog about them, too.


5 comments:

Anne in Salem said...

A little light reading, eh? You could try something a bit happier, like something by Jane Austen or Mark Twain or E L Doctorow. Current book - rereading Far From the Madding Crowd. Next book - either Portrait of a Lady or one about Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

What movie is that?

Deanne Painter said...

"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." - Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray

Ramesh said...

Amen to rereading. Don't we all (at least those of us who read), reread all the time.

Haven't read any of the books in your reading list for summer. You read Lolita when you were young ??? Shouldn't you have, ahem, been indulging in activities more appropriate to that age ? :):):)

Sriram Khé said...

A bit happier? Are you kidding me, Anne, after having read the gazillion posts on my favorite topics of death, dooming technology, messed up people, problems in the world, ... ;)
BTW, "Far from the madding crowd" will soon be out as a movie too (or has it come out already?)
The scene that I had embedded is from "Silver Linings Playbook" ... Watch it in an evening sometime in the fall--the summer is too bright and airy for that kind of a movie, and winter is too damn cold and dark for it ;)

That's a lovely quote, Deanne. I will do the readings at my own peril :(

I did a lot of age-appropriate things, Ramesh, including falling for a girl when I was barely a teenager ;) I would have loved playing cricket and table tennis and badminton but I had/have no talent :(

Anne in Salem said...

I am reading Hardy specifically because I heard it would be a movie. I have no idea if it is out; I don't watch enough TV to see commercials for it. I doubt I would see it, but that seemed a good excuse to reread it.

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