How to Read a Book like an Explorer
By Scott Hambrick, Reader-In-Chief
When I was young, I remember encountering Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s an odd bit of music, irregular in its rhythms and harmonies. If you’ve seen Fantasia, it’s the music for the part with the dinosaurs. I used to sit up late listening on my headphones. My father had a good collection of classical music LPs. The liner notes describe the premier in Paris in 1913. Apparently, there was a riot! I was stunned. Classical music? Riot?
I didn’t understand how this could happen. How was it possible? I certainly never felt like rioting after listening to music, even for the best bits of Beethoven or Wagner. Not even for Led Zeppelin!
I felt cheated. Those people at the premiere at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées had a different experience than 12 year old me. It didn’t seem fair.
I’ve had similar experiences lots of times. It’s very difficult to recover the original meaning of a work of art or literature. The Mona Lisa leaves me cold. The way Socrates is presented by scholars seems wrong. Presentations of Christianity, or indeed any great cultural movement, seem so boring as to defy belief. How could anyone be a Christian or a Cathar or a Manichean, if the religions were as anodyne as the history books portray them?
Something is missing. The greatest creations of the human spirit should not lead us to a universal “Meh!”
Walker Percy gives a theory for why this happens. Imagine going to the Grand Canyon. What would it be like? Now would you experience it? You drive to the visitors’ center, take the tour, listen to the guide, look over the ledge, and probably miss the whole thing. You may as well have stayed home and watched a documentary. Your experience is very far from what the first humans saw. Your Grand Canyon is bottled, pre-made, the diet soda of human experiences.
In his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” Percy says, “to no one else is it even as beautiful–except the rare man who manages to recover it, who knows that it has to be recovered.” Experiences are crowded around with all sorts of stuff, with standard pre-packaged ways to experience them, with thoughts that we are supposed to think about them. Percy calls it a “symbolic complex.” We don’t see the thing, only the concepts surrounding the thing.
People say the Grand Canyon looks just like a postcard. Or, more likely, they could be disappointed. It might be that the reality isn’t as good as the postcard.
As a similar example, have you ever gone to a concert and seen the people watching the musicians play through their phones? They are thinking of the experience not in itself, but as a social media opportunity.
Madness! Who wants to live like this? I, for one, want to read like an explorer, to listen to poetry like Homer’s first audience, to feel the ballet so strongly that I start a riot. I want Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man to bring me to tears.
Did you know Aristotle was banned in the 12th century? What is it like to care so much about philosophy? What did they do, the scholars? Sneak out to read him? I bet it was awesome. Alasdair MacIntyre points out that nobody poisons philosophers anymore. Nobody cares.
How can we recover the creature, see the thing in all its beauty? Percy suggests all sorts of creative dislocations, such as getting lost, pretending to be a member of a tour and watching how others experience it, or even arranging to see it during during the apocalypse.
Can you imagine how good, how full of life and truth and beauty our seminars will be, when we’re all joining by shortwave radio as we hide from the zombie hordes?
We need a way to get back to the things themselves, to let them be in all their glory. Whatever way we choose to accomplish this, it isn’t going to be school. “The pupil at Scarsdale High sees himself placed as a consumer receiving an experience-package. . . .” We go to school to consume, to be fed, to sit in the cave while others present images to us and tell us how to think and what to feel. This is not necessarily nefarious. People need to learn, and don’t they need to be taught?
Perhaps. But there is a great danger of mistaking the idea for the thing itself, whether the thing is a poem, a book, or a living thing. We take the method to be more important then the purpose of the method or the abstraction for the reality. It’s like falling in love with the idea of a person rather than the actual person. See Pride and Prejudice for a classic examination of this in the context of love.
How can this be avoided? Percy gives two general strategies:
- avoiding the presentation of something as a “lesson.”
- exercising the “sovereignty of knower over known.”
Here at Online Great Books, we are trying to do exactly that. We aren’t as good as you reading sonnets during the apocalypse, but we most certainly are Not School. The seminar leaders get fired if they teach. We are seeking openness to the thing. We do not have pre-approved ways for you to understand anything. You can’t “get it right.” We aren’t going to give you the comfort of grades.
Our members are very busy, people with a lot going on. Many of you have to snatch a few minutes of reading time on the subway, during lunch, via audiobooks in the car, in-between sets at the gym, or in a busy house full of children. It is likely you are dislocated enough from the pre-packaged classroom that you will actually read these books better than students in school.
We don’t want to teach you anything. We want you to take over, to be sovereign wayfarers, confident wanderers, brave explorers who take the seminars wherever you want them to go. Percy says, “the highest role of the educator is the maieutic role of Socrates: to help the student come to himself not as a consumer of experience but as a sovereign individual.”
This reflection is presented for edumacational and infotainment purposes only. Taking this to be an authoritative interpretation will likely lead you to make many bad choices, corrupt your virtues, multiply your vices, and lead into the life of a tyrant. The writer was probably using a triple Platonic-Socratic-Kierkegaardian irony, and may not mean a word that he or she wrote. If, that is, the writer actually exists. This essay is probably just an emanation of the weltgeist or a bit of a spark of the eternal Heraclitean flux. Don’t take it too seriously. Join the discussion at Online Great Books.