Five Ways To Expand Yourself

In his essay, “On Reading of Old Books,” C.S. Lewis warned “amateur readers” (which must be all of us compared to him) to avoid an exclusive diet of contemporary literature. Why?

First, modern books are likely to affirm modern prejudices that few of us notice. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.” Second, all literature occurs within the context of the greater literary dialogue. “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.” Third, old books expand us in ways modern books cannot. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

How does reading outside our own age expand us? It’s the difference between seeing armor and stepping inside of it. We can hear about the history of Rome, but only by reading Lucan do we know what it feels like to be a roman general.

The problem with modern day individualism is that it flattens us. We have a sense that the only history which truly matters is my history, my story. The problem is that humans of great thoughtfulness have existed as long as the written word, yet many of them lived with wildly different worldviews than our own. When we read them, we enter into their worlds, and it causes self-expansion. We learn new ways to see. We experience new ways to feel. As Christians, this is a remarkably important practice develop! Love requires us to step into the hearts and minds of others with sensitivity. We can hone this skill by reading people from different ages.

So let me suggest six ways to expand yourself…. These aren’t tips or methods. They’re books. All of them are classics, but I am selecting books that are accessible. That doesn’t always mean “easy,” but that if you graduated from high school you should be able to enjoy them. Try picking up one these books. Step into the knight’s armor. Experience a self-expansion.

To help you select a book, I’ll use this key:

V: Written in poetic verse.
P: Written in prose
L: Longer Text
S: Shorter Text
T: Translation
A: Adventure
D: Drama
R: Romance
C: Comedy

1. The Odyssey: Homer’s ancient greek epic about one man’s mythical journey home. Yes, it’s written in verse, but don’t let that scare you. The story is straightforward and fascinating. As you read, ask… How Odysseus relate to the gods? What makes Odysseus heroic? What makes the suitors villainous? How does Odysseus’ view of the afterlife shape his life? How does Odysseus’ journey home change him? V, L, T, A

2. The Aeneid: Virgil’s epic for the roman people. His story explains the genesis of Rome, and roman values. The adventure sweeps mythically from tragedy, to romance, and from sea monsters, to land battles. As you read, ask… What does Virgil glorify about Aeneas? What does Aeneas’s romance and departure from Dido idealize? What role does destiny play in Aeneas’s story? How does Aeneas’s lineage inform his heroism? What does Aeneas’ sense of duty say about roman culture? V, L, T, A

3. Yvain and the Lion: This story is a classic romance straight out of King Arthur’s court. We see courtly love at it’s highest. Chivalry, jousting, and fantastic feats of arms abound. As you read, ask… How does Yvain view love? How does loves form and grow? What makes Yvain heroic? How does Yvain’s relationship to King Arthur surprise you? Imagine sitting in a king’s court hearing this story; how would it effect you? P, S, T, A, R

4. The Tempest: Here’s the good news, if you don’t like reading, you can watch this one. That said, as English speakers, we would be loathe to avoid the works of the man who invented modern English: William Shakespeare. The Tempest is an exciting tale of a magician’s plan to avenge himself upon those who stole his birthright. Yet, it quickly turns into a surprising romance, intermingled with laughable, bawdy villains. As you read, ask… What is Prospero’s character arc? How does Miranda’s romance differ from modern romance? How do Caliban and Ariel differ? What do we learn about good and evil? About the spiritual realm? V, S, A, R, C

5. Pride & Prejudice: Men are far to quick to ignore at Jane Austen. We’ve been burned by one too many chick flicks. Unfortunately, by avoiding Austen we avoid one of the most entertaining and comedic authors in English history. Moreover, we miss out on one of England’s greatest novelists! This tale invites us into the stratified social hierarchy of Victorian England. We meet characters so real and engaging, that we expect to meet them on a street corner. As you read, ask… How do Mr. Bennet’s daughters differ? How are the similar? How do they change? How is Mr. Bennet responsible? Where do you see pride? How does pride effect characters? Where do you see prejudice? How does prejudice effect characters? Where do you see transformation? P, S, R, C

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