At the University of Dallas, freshmen who have barely shucked off their high school attitudes along with their teenage set of caps and gowns find themselves presented with a poem that casts them back thousands of years to an ancient war’s ancient quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. The format, context and content of Homer’s poem, rendered into English verse by Richard Lattimore, is not immediately recognizable to the contemporary reader. Not only have most contemporary people never engaged in sword-to-sword combat, but we have nothing like the ancient Argive community nor are we familiar with their habits and customs; we probably have not driven a standing chariot nor owned a horse. And we do not pass down our stories with singing bards. The people are foreign not only in place but in time.
Today, our moments are crystallized in an instant. The past does not live on through our mental reimagining in stories and songs. Instead, we create static memories with films and recordings. Contemporary historians note modern-day important events with dates, times and objective facts of what happened. We do not usually blur our history with mythology and legend nor put it into poetry.
With all the technological advancements of just the past 50 years, perhaps ancient stories are finally reaching the limits of their scope. Maybe what people understood for so many years is now more lost to the contemporary individual, who can find little in his life similar to that of an ancient Greek’s. But if our lives have suddenly become so different and these supposedly enduring works don’t speak to us as immediately anymore, are they truly enduring?
What have we to gain from reading these ancient stories? There are easy benefits we can cite: they are historical artifacts, the seeds of the western literary tradition and they offer valuable insight into human virtue and experience.
However, although at UD we are lucky enough that everyone reads the Iliad, Aeneid, Beowulf and the Divine Comedy, do these stories hold personal interest for us? Not always. Not everyone fervently pores over every book or likes each one to the same extent. Of course different people have different tastes, but even these works that are the foundation of western literature cannot hold the interest of every student.
Moreover, outside of UD few could be pushed to read the books for no other reason than the literatures’ own sake. Old poetry does not flash, move or make noises on the page. In the contemporary world we having loud, enthralling movies and websites that constantly update. We are pickled in a electronic fermentation of constant noise and light. It is not only very easy to digest media now, it is difficult to avoid doing so.
But although we can find this old literature less spectacular and immediately gripping than movies or tv shows, perhaps there is something to be said for pushing ourselves to enjoying something more difficult.
Literature becomes more worthwhile to study as it becomes less familiar in each passing age. As we read about human lives in a variety of places and times, we expand our understanding of the human person and our historical, philosophical, anthropological and literary capacities beyond the present.
Although these books are our common heritage, they are not common pleasures when easier entertainment is available. Not everyone you meet will have read Paradise Lost or many Shakespeare plays. But a reader of these works is an active participant in the western canon. These words may no longer bind the citizens of communities in which they were first shared, but instead they bind all readers through time as inheritors of a wealth of wisdom and beauty.
Although picking up an old book is not as easy or straightforward as watching a movie or reading a contemporary article, the reader is rewarded for the complexity of the task.