A Reader’s Journey: Part 5
Well, here we go with another stop on my lifelong, roundabout reading tour. Last time I talked about how I began branching out from fantasy into other genres. That process accelerated greatly in college as you may imagine. One of the first courses I took was on Shakespeare’s history plays. Having never been exposed to the Bard’s work before I was sort of in over my head. Though I didn’t do spectacularly in that class, for some reason I kept coming back for more. Though my degree was in English you might say that I actually majored in Shakespeare. I took at least four courses on his work that I can remember and in that time read all of his comedies, and a sampling of his histories, tragedies, and sonnets. Also, though it was not strictly reading, I even acted in a couple of Shakespeare plays and directed one (that was quite a challenge).
Ironically, though, it was a movie that perhaps had the biggest influence on my reading career at this juncture. I don’t remember the year it came out, but I went to see Dead Poet’s Society and the themes, the story, resonated so deeply with me that it set me off on two parallel reading paths. The first was that I began to seek out all the great poetry I could find. I had never really read any poetry that I can think of before that time, but now I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. I even wrote some, though I have no idea where it is now. Of the poets I read, I most enjoyed Dickenson, Whitman, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Of these Keats was my favorite. I even visited his grave when I was in Rome.
The second path I set out upon was to discover the meaning of life, the mystery of why I existed. It certainly was not Dead Poets which was solely responsible for this part, but perhaps it crystallized for me ideas and longings that had long been percolating within my being. Walt Whitman’s words in many ways captured my feelings at that time:
O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
And yet Whitman’s existential answer wasn’t quite enough. His Shakespearean declaration that we are all merely players in some cosmic play didn’t really tell me why the play was there in the first place or if it was, why that mattered.
Down the labyrinthine ways
Around this time New Age was becoming a thing (or at least this was the first time I was aware of it). As I began my search, I read a lot of books along those lines, so a lot of non-fiction. I eventually took a few courses on various world religions and a philosophy course on the existence of God. I ultimately found all of it rather empty, but it’s strange the journies we take as readers. Books spill into our lives so that they’re not just an activity or the accumulation of knowledge or mere entertainment. They affect us, they shape us, for good or ill. And I think all of those books left me hungry for the truth so that when it came I was ready for it.
Though I did not read these lines until many years later, another poem, by Francis Thompson, serves to mark the next turn in my journey:
I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
It was my last year in college when I flipped the final page of the prologue of my life and the story began in earnest. I surrendered my heart to Christ and began really reading the Bible for the first time. Since then it has grown into a daily discipline for me and I’ve read through it several times over. Christians are sometimes called, “The People of the Book”, and that is a moniker I am happy to wear. Though my reading journey continued with other books, to some degree all of them are really footnotes to this one central story. This story is the one that holds all the others together. It’s the one that makes all the rest make sense. Without the truth of God, there would be no drama, no tension between hope and despair, no happiness and sorrow, no rhyme or reason to the great cosmic play the poets speak of. All of it would be sound and fury signifying nothing.
But what about after college? As I mentioned, there have certainly been many books I’ve read since then, and I will touch on some of them in the next installment.