Sunday, September 4, 2016

Reading is a Link to the Past


Passages from the Iliad quoted below are from the Alexander Pope translation. 


There are many reasons to read. One very good reason is that books allow us to deeply connect with other minds and explore various viewpoints in detail. Furthermore, these connections and explorations can be made with authors who are very different from us. Reading can bridge gaps between politics, culture, gender, philosophes, etc. I want to write a few words about how books can bridge the gap of time.

The Old Testament, The Ramayana, Plato, Homer and the Greek playwrights, to name a few of the ancient works, at times exhibit uncanny similarity to our modern thinking and views. At other times they exhibit thoughts that seem very alien.

A modern reader exploring these ancient texts may notice a dichotomy in his or her thoughts.  First, it is striking as to what has not changed over time and across cultures. For instance, certain human emotions and traits, such as anger, jealousy, ambition, honor, a sense of fairness, friendship, etc., seem to have not changed all that much over time. Likewise, the pattern of certain human actions, particularly violence, seems very similar across the centuries. 

There is no better example of how friendship and grief have remained constant than that which is illustrated in the Iliad when the warrior Achilles grieves and becomes hysterical when he is informed that his friend Patroclus has just fallen in battle, 

“A sudden horror shot thro’ all the Chief,        
And wrapt his senses in the cloud of grief;
Cast on the ground, with furious hand he spread
The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head;
His purple garments, and his golden hairs,
Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears:        
On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw,
And roll’d and grovell’d, as to earth he grew.”

Though the language is ancient, the above sentiment and reaction seem very familiar. It is not unlike the reaction many people living in the twenty-first century have toward death.

Yet, other ideas, ideals and mores seem so different when viewed over the expanse of time. In these ancient works, there seem to be no value in certain things that we so much esteem. The concepts of equality, self-determination and the appreciation of diversity are mostly missing from the early texts. These values are the cornerstone of much that is good in our modern society. 

Love, though present in all eras, also seems to have changed. Once again, the sense of equality and communication, and mutual respect give and take between partners seems to be absent in the ancient books. 

In the very same Iliad, love and marriage between men and women is portrayed as something very close to slavery. For instance, Briseis, captured by the Greeks during the course of the war, seems to show real love for Achilles, who also shows affection for her. Yet, throughout the narrative, Achilles and the other Greeks treat her like a spoil of war and a slave.  These are just a few examples. Delving into classic works leads to many similar observations. 

It is not just the works of antiquity that seem different. Every time period, even that of a few decades past, show variation in ideas and values. The culture that surrounded a particular writer reached through time and touches us when we read particular works today.  For instance, books written in the 1960s, such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, exude cynicism and distrust of institutions and authority that seem unique to their time. Nineteenth century writers, such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, valued certain virtues such as chastity and reputation in ways that authors in different eras did not. 

Thus, a careful reading of older works can tell us a lot about the times that they were written in. It is enlightening to examine what is different, as well as what is the same, in comparison to our own time and culture. In addition, as one reads more and more, it illuminates how certain values and ideas have developed and changed over time. 

Our traditions and folklore are obvious connections to the past. Archeologists examine the physical manifestations that our ancestors left behind. Historians also often look into writing, but the writing of record keeping, diaries and everyday interactions. It is in literature and philosophy that people of the past speak to us most directly. 

Exploring ideas and values of the past is one of many benefits to reading. One can learn so much about history, culture, psychology, etc. by examining how ideas and beliefs changed, or did not change, over time.  How humans developed and maintained ideas is one of the reasons that reading the great works can help us to better understand the world. This helps us to illuminate not just the past, but our own times as well.  




35 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

perceptive peroration: tx... it's very true; the intellectually broadening effect of reading the greats cannot be equalled in any other medium; imo, no one can call him/herself civilized unless familiar with at least the basic ideas of our predecessors...

Jonathan said...

This is one of the reasons I also like to read books from different eras; but not only to understand these past times but also as an escape from the ubiquitous present. The same applies to reading books from, or about, different cultures. And it's why a pet peeve of mine is when adaptions of such books try to transplant them to the present day or to familiar surroundings.....aaarghhh!!...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - I am glad that you brought up civilization. Reading is a key to understanding it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jonathan - I agree thta reading works written in the past can be looked at as an escape, but a rebellion against a present that sometimes behaves as if there were no past.

I also find it irksome when a work written in different times is adopted to the present day for these same reasons.

Sharon Henning said...

Hi Brian. Thanks for such an interesting post.

I think it is crucial that we read these great works from different epochs of time. We need to remember the best they had to offer and use the worst as a cautionary tale.

It is also a valuable study to trace what historical events transpired to change cultural values and mores in societies. For instance, the spread of Christianity from the middle east to Rome and then throughout Europe changed the cultural norms of many of those countries.

The first thousand years after Christ especially fascinate me.

Another point: Ancient Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Persian etc literature is invaluable to read if for no other reason because of their wonderful literary qualities. Reading what the best minds throughout the ages have to offer increases our own mental capabilities.

Have a wonderful week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Your references lead me to remember and think about this very important and fascinating time periods.

If we do not remember things from the past we will be very diminished.

James said...

Wonderful post! Exploring the ideas of classical texts is truly a way to the best of thoughts for today. Both inspirational and invigorating for the mind.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. Those two words "inspirational" and "invigorating" can apply to so many aspects of reading.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! I cannot recall reading a more persuasive argument for reading canonical authors and works. It is not an overstatement to say that my commitment to and enthusiasm for reading has been given a good jolt of motivation by your posting. Thank you, Brian!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks RT.

thinking about these points helps to raise my enthusiasm levels about reading also.

Tracy Terry said...

What an amazingly thoughtful post. As always I'll come away from your blog with many things to ponder on.

Suko said...


"Thus, a careful reading of older works can tell us a lot about the times that they were written in. It is enlightening to examine what is different, as well as what is the same, in comparison to our own time and culture. In addition, as one reads more and more, it illuminates how certain values and ideas have developed and changed over time."


Very wise words!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Tracy.

Reading great books leaves us much to ponder!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Suko!

Priya said...

Lovely quotes. Books are such a palpable connection to the past. When I think and talk about books and history, it is mostly about historical fiction which I love to read... - but any book written in the past does give so many clues (often unwittingly) into the ways and ideas of the time. I love this post, it certainly is one of the greatest benefits of reading and I have never thought of it this way.

Maria Behar said...

What a fascinating post, Brian! Well, your posts are always interesting and thought-provoking, and this one is no exception!

One of the reasons I LOVE to read is precisely the fact that one can connect with different cultures and viewpoints, across centuries. It's SO true that each author reflects the times they wrote their works in! So, in a way, we readers can travel across time when we read their books! How cool is that?

Where classics are concerned, there are things that jar our modern sensibilities, as you pointed out in this post. Things that to us moderns seem so completely obvious, as well as just and fair, are totally missing from many of these classics, especially the ancient ones.

In the case of classics closer to our own time, we can see viewpoints much closer to our own. Dickens, for instance, is famous for dealing with social justice themes in his novels. Even Austen subtly criticizes the silly mores of the society of her time.

I consider one particular classic to be even MORE progressive than our current times. That classic is "Jane Eyre". I have yet to find a satisfactory film adaptation of this great novel. I must admit I haven't seen the most recent movie; perhaps Jane is there presented in all her feminist glory, as Charlotte Bronte intended. None of the other adaptations do so, however. The character is too "watered-down", in my honest opinion. I believe this points to a very basic, sad fact: we women are STILL not seen as completely autonomous beings, and this is reflected in how this novel has been filmed.

Those classic authors who have presented progressive themes and concepts, such as the two mentioned above, have even contributed to our present society's pluralistic views (in spite of my observation above), as well as helping to spearhead advances in social justice. Such is the power of words, whether printed or on an e-reader! (Although, as you know, I MUCH prefer the printed word!!)

Thanks for another great post to whet our intellectual appetites!! Have a WONDERFUL day!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Maria.

You raise a good point. Many of our ideas relating to social justice can be seen in their early stages when we read some of the nineteenth century authors. This is true of Dickens in particular.

Jane Eyre is an interesting example. If anything as time passes since I read the book I am more and more impressed with it as a whole, as well as Jane's character. This is certainly an example where a book's character was way ahead of her time culturally.

I need to see more film versions of Jane Eyre. I think that it is very difficult to translate a great work like that book into a film.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Priya.

I think that the best historical fiction reaches into the past and conveys the attitudes and cultures of the time within its pages.

Stefanie said...

Love the Iliad! I like it better than The Odyssey. I agree we can learn so much about ourselves from reading books like this. Our stories may change but people are still fundamentally the same.

thecuecard said...

Here here Brian. I totally agree with you. What have you been reading lately that made you reflect on this? Have you reread The Illiad lately? I think ancient texts are fascinating but are a bit intimidating due to the language. But it's interesting how some of the same sentiments in their narratives are similar to our concerns today. Your essay makes me want to try some books from ancient times.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - I think that The issue of people changing or not changing over time issue huge one and I think the answer is not so simple. I will be touching on this in s future blog. But I ultimately agree, much of what we are is built into us.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan - I actually do not think that I have read any literature that made me think of this. I have been thinking a lot about how cultures are the same or different. There are some interesting discussions and debates going on in the world of Social Media these issues in regards to present day cultures and nations.

Laurie said...

This is such an important post. It justifies so much about what I feel and believe. I read classic literature (and watch old films from the Golden Age) for just this reason. Although I admit to a fascination with what some might call superficiality, like fashion, manners, food, interior design, what people read and how they spent leisure, I feel like I am looking through their ruffled curtains/bamboo screens/leaded windows watching them live a life so long ago, but still with so much in common.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Laurie.

You raise a good point about changes in the physical world. Older films really illustrate that. I think that such seemingly superficial changes can also tell us something about the world and about change.


Imagine is we had films from hundreds or thousands of years ago. I think they would show us some mind boggling things.

JaneGS said...

I love to read classics, not just for the stories or the recognition of the universality of some emotions/values, but to experience through literature what other people from the past did. The Iliad has had a profound affect on the western world and it's fascinating to see the roots of so much that we take for granted.

BTW, it's been awhile since I read The Iliad, but I recall Hector and his relationship to his wife and child as being very loving and in some ways modern.

Interesting post, as usual.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - You raise a good point about Hector and his relationship to his family. I need to reread thge Iliad and think about this.

The Bookworm said...

Fantastic post and observations Brian as always. Books can allow us to connect with and explore other places and times. I feel like I enjoy the classics for that reason, those times seem so different to me, yet I can still find some similarities. Austen like you mention, I can't imagine devoting so much time and effort into finding a suitable husband. Then again, she went and wrote heroines like Elizabeth Bennett who were independent minded and were not just about getting married.
Interesting point on equality and importance of diversity being missing from some of the early texts.
Enjoy your weekend.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Your point about jane Austen is a good one. The society that she wrote about placed an enormous emphasis on marriageability of young people, especially women.

HKatz said...

"Thus, a careful reading of older works can tell us a lot about the times that they were written in. It is enlightening to examine what is different, as well as what is the same, in comparison to our own time and culture."

I agree. But reading with care can be hard skill or frame of mind to master. For instance, to see a word like "honor" or "happiness" used in an older text and not automatically assume it's getting defined the same way most people in our time and culture might.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Indeed some of the terms used in ancient works had different meanings then we think of them today. This issue gets even more complicated with older translations. This is one reason that I sometimes prefer newer translations to the older "grander" ones.

Citizen Reader said...

Super post.
For a long time I avoided works like The Iliad--Beowulf--Epic of Gilgamesh, etc., because I found it hard to get into the rhythm of reading older texts. As a primarily nonfiction reader I do a ton of skimming and what I call "strategic reading" (intros, first and last paragraphs, etc.) and that is not an easy habit to change for classics. But I have found that listening to such books works great for me; I'm able to take them in in a way I am not visually.
I've read and loved Catch-22 in print; I might try that in audio too, and see what I can pick up about the time it was written in.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Citizen.


I really must try some of the ancient epic poems on audiobook. I imagine hearing them would have some gig advantages especially if such a listen was a reread.

Kathy's Corner said...

Great review Brian and I hadn't thought about it but as you say the classics can help us bridge the gap of time, see how different people were back then in terms of how they thought but also how they are similar to us. Your review made me realize that I can't just stick to books from the 19th century on up to the oresent. The great works like the Illiad, Shakespeare, Paradise Lost (none of which I've read I'm ashamed to say) are challenging but nothing worth doing is easy and you can learn so much.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Kathy.

19th Century literature is wonderful. But I agree, there is so much more out there. One challange is finding the time to read it.

vb said...

you wont believe i just requested for this book from my library.cant wait to read it.