Tuesday, December 23

Reading the Classics

Silent reading is a fairly modern innovation. As late as the eighteenth century, it was thought that the best way to truly appreciate the enduring works of literature was to read them aloud--all the better to relish the beauty of the words, the music of the composition, and the architecture of the ideas. In older works, the proliferation of odd colloquialisms, archaisms, feints, nods, allusions--to say nothing of the antiquated literary structures--make reading aloud even more advisable. You’ll quickly find that what was an obstacle when you were reading silently is suddenly been transformed into a delight.

Remember though: go slow; pronounce the words phonetically; if the edition of the classic you've chosen has a glossary--the Penguin Classics, Cambridge Cantos, or Oxford Masters editions generally provide enormous help in this area--keep a finger in place as you read along so you can flip back to confirm meanings of unfamiliar phrases, historical references, and vocabulary; stop after each chapter and reflect on what you’ve read thus far; keep a journal to record your progress.

If you’ll practice these basic habits of substantive reading, you’ll find that the classics are classics for good reason.

Now, with all this new-found knowledge and inspiration, why not tackle an out-loud holiday reading of The Christmas Carol by Dickens or The Antiquary by Scott or even Lepanto by Chesterton?

Lepanto Gem

Looking for the perfect, last minute Christmas gift? Good news! The American Chesterton Society has released a wonderful new annotated edition of GK's astonishing epic poem, Lepanto.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was surely among the brightest minds of the twentieth century--a prolific journalist, best-selling novelist, insightful poet, popular debater, astute literary critic, grassroots reformer, and profound humorist. Recognized by friend and foe alike as one of the most perspicacious, epigrammatic, and jocose prose stylists in the entire literary canon, he is today the most quoted writer in the English language besides William Shakespeare.

His remarkable output of books--more than a hundred published in his lifetime and half again that many afterward--covered an astonishing array of subjects from economics, art, history, biography, and social criticism to poetry, detective stories, philosophy, travel, and religion. His most amazing feat was not merely his vast output or wide range but the consistency and clarity of his thought, his uncanny ability to tie everything together. In the heart of nearly every paragraph he wrote was a jaw-dropping aphorism or a mind-boggling paradox that left readers shaking their heads in bemusement and wonder.

But Chesterton was not only a prodigious creator of characters, he was also a prodigious character in his own right. At over six feet and three hundred pounds his romantically rumpled appearance--often enhanced with the flourish of a cape and a swordstick--made him appear as nearly enigmatic, anachronistic, and convivial as he actually was. Perhaps that was a part of the reason why he was one of the most beloved men of his time--even his ideological opponents regarded him with great affection. His humility, his wonder at existence, his graciousness and his sheer sense of joy set him apart not only from most of the artists and celebrities during the first half of the twentieth century, but from most anyone and everyone.

He was amazingly prescient--alas, all too many of the very things he predicted have come to pass: the mindless faddism of pop culture, the rampant materialism permeating society, the moral relativism subsuming age-old ethical standards, disdain of religion, the unfettered censorship by the press (as opposed to censorship of the press), the grotesque uglification of the arts, the rise of the twin evils of monolithic business and messianic government with the accompanying results of wage slavery and the loss of individual liberty. It seems that on nearly every subject, Chesterton’s words ring truer today than when they were first written nearly a century ago.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chesterton was not his prodigious literary output, his enormous popularity, or his cultural sagacity. Instead, it was his enormous capacity to love--to love people, to love the world around him, and to love life. Maisie Ward, Chesterton’s authoritative biographer and friend asserted, “Some men, it may be, are best moved to reform by hate, but Chesterton was best moved by love.”

That love is on full display in the Lepanto poem--an epic written about one of the most important battles in the history of Western Christendom against the perils of advancing, militant Islam. This new edition, published in paperback by the American Chesterton Society, is annotated with historical notes, military analysis, and a brief literary assessment. No Chesterton-lover on your Christmas list should be without it!

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