Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

How to Read - (Inferno Meditation 4)

Aurelius Augustine had a problem; he did not know how to read a book. Oh he knew his letters; he knew his grammar; he had perfect pronunciation. He was in fact, a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage, and gained some renown as a rhetorician at the imperial court in Milan. However, in all of his education he never learned how to truly read a book. He wrote later in his Confessions:

“I was forced to learn the wanderings of one Aeneas, forgetful of my own, and to weep for dead Dido, because she killed herself for love; the while, with dry eyes, I endured my miserable self dying among these things, far from Thee, O God my life.”
Confessions, Book I

You see, in school Augustine was taught to read books as spectacle and respond emotionally to them. He was not taught to discern the message of the story, to weigh and consider it, and to apply it to his own life. When he was grown Augustine even went to the church of Ambrose of Milan because of that bishop’s masterful use of rhetoric, while completely missing out on the gospel message Ambrose preached.

In Inferno, Dante meets a couple who likewise read a book on a purely emotional level, simply for “pastime” without considering the message of the book, whether it was righteous or evil. These two, Paolo and Francesca, were left alone together one day when Francesca’s husband was away. Out of boredom, they sit down together to read a book. Francesca tells what happened:

“One day we read for pastime how in thrall
Lord Lancelot lay to love, who loved the Queen;
We were alone – we thought no harm at all.

As we read on, our eyes met now and then,
And to our cheeks the changing colour started,
But just one moment overcame us – when

We read of the smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,
Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,
He that may never more from me be parted

Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say
The book was Galleot, Galleot the complying
Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day.”
Inferno, Canto V, Lines 127-138

Reading without discernment leaves us emotionally vulnerable to whatever worldview the author presents, while simultaneously causing us to miss any helpful benefit that could be gleaned from the story with consideration and thought. When Augustine first reads the Bible the right way, properly seeing how it applies to his life, we see:

“Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence.” No further would I read…”
, Book VIII

This event marks the moment of Augustine's conversion. However, when Francesca and Paolo, read their book the wrong way, they awaken lust and, in a phrase that mimics that of St. Augustine’s conversion, “we read no more that day.” In using almost the identical phrase as Augustine, Dante clues us in to this anti-conversion of the two lovers. By their lack of discernment in their reading, they have left themselves open to temptation and have fallen into sin.

So, one of the lessons Dante wishes to teach his readers in his Comedy is how to read a book rightly. I mentioned in my first post about The Divine Comedy that Dante wanted his book read on different levels. There is the purely literal level, the level on which Augustine read the The Aeneid and wept for Dido. But there is also the level on which we apply the things Dante sees to our society and to ourselves as Christians. This is a lesson we should carry away from Dante and apply to any book we read. We should never, like Francesca and Paolo, turn our brains off when we read for enjoyment, but rather we should read the way Augustine learned to read after his conversion, weeping for Dido on one level, but, on another level, weeping for our own sins.