Confucius is reported to have said, in one of his collected aphorisms, “Isn’t it a joy to greet friends from afar?”
Great books are voices from afar, hailing to us in many cases from long ago – in many cases from the ancient world, and all over the world.
Great. Yes. We know this.
And…even knowing it, the issue is that sometimes, more often than we might want to admit, we still labor under the feeling that these books, like their authors, are dead. Who really needs to read Aristotle in 2022? Why bother with Marx or Adam Smith? What could Sophocles have to tell us that we don’t already know?
I know you feel this way sometimes, because I have been reading these books for over 30 years, and I still feel this way sometimes.
So this is the final and greatest challenge: how do we make these books come alive? What’s it like when they do?
Before we ever uncover whatever potential insights are in these books, we saw yesterday that reading them is an occasion to discover and create time in our life. Masterpieces of human artfulness, they are a gift of time.
When we sit down together to read and converse, we have to make a space – to set the table – to welcome these new friends from afar.
It is all too easy to think these are just texts to decode.
It’s all too easy to write them off as having nothing important to say to us today. We treat them like museum pieces, or venerate them like holy relics.
We bring these books to life when we stop holding them in isolation and instead sit down together to read them. When this happens, the books themselves become members of the conversation. They are no longer museum pieces, or codes to decode. They are no longer dead.
Instead, they become what they actually are: living voices that may just have something to say about the questions of greatest importance to human beings.
That’s what a great book is by the way, if you were waiting for a formal definition. A great book is not so much a repository of great ideas that you just ‘receive’, but it is rather an unparalleled attempt – sustained to an unusual degree – at raising and answering a fundamental question or questions either through stories and images, or through arguments or both.
Reading and conversing, on the other side, is not so much about “ideas” – it’s not some abstract thing we’re doing – but involves a sustained effort of thinking and imagination, of attention, of concentration, not only to words that are stated, but to unstated or unwritten matters that govern those words. And, by the way, a crucial part of that attention as we read is reflection, turned to ourselves, to our own lives and concerns, and to the whole of which we are part. Often the most important question is unstated or implied.
While you and I can talk to each other, the book has the enabling limitation that it cannot answer the questions we have about it. It is one-sided.
So our dialogue, in a way, is an attempt to get back behind the inherent one-sidedness of the book. And get back to the level of questioning at the root of it, that gave rise to it in the first place.
Again, books aren’t about “ideas.” The books are answers to fundamental questions that issue from human experience – and they are often very complex answers. The whole answer – especially the way the author conceived and communicated it – is crucial.
You yourself have to undergo the questioning and answering to really ‘get’ the book.
In the repository view of the book, the actual text – those words you read on the page – functions like a telephone: once you get the message, you are supposed to hang up.
But remember the “phone game” from childhood?
Children sit in a circle, and one whispers a message into another’s ear. By the time the message is passed around the circle, it’s gotten so distorted, it hardly resembles the original. The real great books have suffered from a Great Phone Game in some portentous manner – so much so that their original meaning and message has been quite lost.
A certain forgetfulness has come over us, one that is shaking us to our foundations. There’s a way in which the heart of our practice is simply trying to open up and listen again, to hear the original message as fully and clearly as we can. And we do that together. We do that by reading and talking about these books, together.
In the course of a conversation, we go back to the text countless times, testing the opinions we hear against what the author actually says, and what we take the author to mean. At Symposium we call this a seminar. It is through this conversational process that we make these books come alive.
What’s it like to live with these books, once they ‘come alive’?
These authors are taking a ‘dirt nap’, but their voices are alive for one single reason: not because they had style, but because the fundamental issues they grappled with so powerfully never died. They never so much as faded. No, the books and the fundamental questions at their root are roaring with life and vitality today in the 21st Century.
I’m going to let you in on something personal about me, because reflection on our own lives is crucial to a reading life: the first time I realized that these books could be actually be read, that I could go directly to the sources and and see for myself, without a textbook or a lecture, up until that point, I didn’t believe it was possible. I really didn’t. I didn’t even know they were there, these voices. But for the ones I did know, I thought you had to go through textbooks and papers and lectures to get to them hidden somewhere behind the guards and the bullet proof glass.
But when I realized I could actually read them, and take my time and slow down; that these books are voices that might actually have something to say about our deepest questioning, and not only that – but a voice you yourself are in conversation with, pointed to the same things, the same search – the first time I realized that, it hit me like a Mac truck, like a ton of bricks, and I wept all day and all night too. That was thirty years ago. It changed my life. It made me more courageous in some ways, but more circumspect and prudent in others. It opened my heart and my mind in ways I can’t begin to describe.
Worlds open up, possible worlds, of thinking and feeling and acting you can’t imagine right now, until you take up the book…and read, together, slowly and thoughtfully, one page…one paragraph…one sentence…one question…at a time.