If you’re anything like me (and I’m betting you are) you’ve got a huge list of books that you know you should have read but you haven’t. They’re the sort of books that you hear about (and are threatened with) in school. You might have been forced at far too young an age to read one of them and were bored to tears. You might see these books referenced in other, newer works and feel like you’re on the outside of an inside joke. You might hear them quoted by people who sound far smarter than you and you suspect that if only you’d read a few of those books you’d sound smart, too. This dreaded list of books probably includes names like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Milton, Dickens, Nabokov, Hugo, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. Over the years the weight of all those pages piles up and becomes so heavy that you fear you’ll never have the strength to turn them all. Let’s be honest, the Classics are scary. They are long, boring, hard to read, and scarcely relevant to the modern world.
Earlier this year I began meeting once a week with a couple of friends for the purpose of getting some of those books read–not read in an academic setting but read for fun, read for enjoyment, read because we wanted to rather than because we were made to. We started with Paradise Lost and we’ve gone through a variety of daunting books, finishing up A Tale of Two Cities a few weeks ago. The surprise of reading these classics has been how completely wrong most of our assumptions were. I wasn’t surprised that they were good books, of course they are, that’s why they’re still around. But what has continually surprised me is how contemporary they are.
Let’s take Paradise Lost, for instance. It’s an intimidating book, no doubt about it. It’s four hundred years old. It’s big. Its language is dense. It’s epic poetry. But the biggest hurdle for me was that I thought I knew the story–Adam and Eve. We all know what’s going to happen. What was the point of putting in the hours when I already knew the ending? Well, as with all great storytelling, the “what” is only half the fun. The”how” is where the magic happens. And in Paradise Lost the “how” is spectacular. There are passages so visual, so visionary, so cinematic that the pictures Milton paints are like scenes out of a comic book, or out of the Matrix. The action is vivid and epic in ways that can’t rightly be translated visually even in our age of digital cinema (although there’s a movie in the works that I have no hope will be any good.)
See for yourself. Read the following excerpt in which, after two days of war, Satan’s ranks assault Heaven with cannons and siege engines and the Lord’s army becomes enraged. The angel legions throw down their weapons in anger, and begin hurling hills and even the mountains themselves at the enemy:
Forthwith (behold the excellence, the power
Which God hath in his mighty Angels plac’d)
Their Arms away they threw, and to the Hills
Light as the Lightning glimpse they ran, they flew,
From their foundations loos’ning to and fro
They pluckt the seated Hills with all their load,
Rocks, Waters, Woods, and by the shaggy tops
Uplifting bore them in their hands: Amaze,
Be sure, and terror seiz’d the rebel Host,
When coming towards them so dread they saw
The bottom of the Mountains upward turn’d;
Till on those cursed Engines triple-row
They saw them whelm’d, and all their confidence
Under the weight of Mountains buried deep,
Themselves invaded next, and on their heads
Main Promontories flung, which in the Air
Came shadowing, and opprest whole Legions arm’d,
Their armor help’d their harm, crush’t in and bruis’d
Into their substance pent, which wrought them pain
Implacable, and many a dolorous groan,
Long struggling underneath, ere they could wind
Purest at first, now gross by sinning grown.
[Now Satan’s angels start throwing their own hills . . . ]
The rest in imitation to like Arms
Betook them, and the neighboring Hills uptore;
So Hills amid the Air enounter’d Hills
Hurl’d to and fro with jaculation dire,
That under ground they fought in dismal shade;
Infernal noise; War seem’d a civil Game
To this uproar; horrid confusion heapt
Upon confusion rose: and now all Heav’n
Had gone to wrack, with ruin overspread.
[Then the Almighty Father looks on all this and has had enough. He calls the Son forth and says. . .]
‘Effulgence of my Glory, Son belov’d,
Son in whose face invisible is beheld
Visibly, what by Deity I am,
And in whose hand what by Decree I do,
Second Omnipotence, two days are past,
Since Michael and his Powers went forth to tame
These disobedient; sore hath been their fight,
As likeliest was, when two such Foes met arm’d;
[. . . ]
War wearied hath perform’d what War can do,
And to disorder’d rage let loose the reins,
With Mountains as with Weapons arm’d, which makes
Wild work in Heav’n, and dangerous to the main.
Two days are therefore past, the third is thine;
For thee I have ordain’d it, and thus far
Have suffer’d, that the Glory may be thine
Of ending this great War, since none but Thou
Can end it.
[. . .]
Go then thou Mightiest in thy Father’s might,
Ascend my Chariot, guide the rapid Wheels
That shake Heav’n’s basis, bring forth all my War,
My Bow and Thunder, my Almighty Arms
Gird on, and Sword upon thy puissant Thigh;
Pursue these sons of Darkness, drive them out
From all Heav’n’s bounds into the utter Deep:
There let them learn, as likes them, to despise
God and Messiah his anointed King.’
[. . .]
So said, he o’er his Scepter bowing, rose
From the right hand of Glory where he sat,
And the third sacred Morn began to shine
Dawning through Heav’n.
. . . and then it starts to get good.
All throughout these scenes of staggering breadth, beauty, and sheer, gosh-wow, eye-popping action (written by a blind man no less) is the gospel—the gospel in ways that you’ve scarcely imagined. A gospel in which Christ is envisioned as Heaven’s greatest champion, charging across the empyrean on a great chariot, the enemy fleeing before him, preferring to cast themselves voluntarily into the gaping abyss rather than risk the fury of the Son. You may have heard that Satan is portrayed as a sympathetic figure but that’s a claim that embraces a vulgar misreading of the story. Milton leaves no doubt that Christ is the hero of creation.
So here in a book that predates cinema by three hundred years, is an adventure so grand that nothing I’ve ever seen with my eyes can match it.
Another example of how wrong assumptions can be comes from Tolstoy. I haven’t read his novels yet but after reading two of his short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Master and Man, I’m aching to. What I expected was stuffy Russian society, clunky, boring prose, and perhaps a few insights into the time period. What I got were stories that read as if they’d been written yesterday in America. In fresh, lively, and often hilarious writing, Tolstoy points out the emptiness of consumerism and materialism and corporate ladder-climbing. When the vain Ivan Ilyich decorates his new house, Tolstoy tells us that the result was a house that was made to look somewhat richer than it was, yet never so rich as to be actually so, the result being that in Ivan’s effort to distinguish himself from (and look richer than) his neighbors, he invariably looked exactly like them. Tolstoy could be describing any suburb in America. The story is 150 years old and yet thoroughly contemporary.
One more example and I’ll wrap this up. A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens’ style is incredibly cinematic. He turns his environments themselves into actors, infusing them with character and vivid color. The ever-present mob of Paris revolutionaries becomes a raging ocean surging and breaking in the streets. The district of St. Antoine, at the center of the revolution, becomes a bloodthirsty giant described as a madman who’s got his blood up and has gone in search of vengeance. And worst of all, La Guillotine, the dread mistress, insatiable and requiring of Paris her daily wine. Everything is alive. The city. The streets. The grindstone and the Bastille. And amid the seething madness of the Reign of Terror, a small family is caught in the swift current, swept along, and saved by an unlooked for savior. We all know the last lines of the book, but what a journey it is to get there. So, so good. “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done . . .”
The thing about a good ending like that is that it’s got to be earned. And maybe that’s what classics do best. They earn their status, and they force us to earn their rewards. Are they hard to read sometimes? Yep, you bet. They make you work for it. But they deliver. The last chapter of A Tale of Two Cities might be one of the most beautiful there is. I’m glad I put in the hours and earned the right to appreciate it. Boring? Stuffy? Irrelevant? Nonsense. Do yourself a favor. Find a friend or two. Pluck one of those musty old books off the shelf, you know the ones I mean, the good ones. Start turning those pages. You might be surprised at what you find.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.