A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Kari Crouch on Reading (Very) Old Books

Kari Crouch has been an avid reader ever since she realized that the squiggly marks on the paper represented words. She has since worked with kindergarteners through 6th graders, hoping they too will see how magical books can be.

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There is nothing quite like the thrill of reading. Not being very genre-picky, I’ll read most anything once, but a category I always return to is ‘old stuff.’ By ‘old stuff’, I’m really talking about anything that pre-dates the year 1700. There are a few reasons for this, but the main reason is that I taught elementary schoolers for ten years, and I needed my books to keep me fully-planted in reality.

Reading medieval literature can force you to ask some important questions, without the comfort of familiar surroundings. Like Beth, I was not a quick learner when it came to reading, so it wasn’t until I got to high school that I began to appreciate the differences that ancient and medieval works present to a modern reader. Before that, I’d unconsciously assumed that ‘old stuff’ was outdated or silly or just irrelevant. My English and History teacher changed my mind. He was one of those people who find it natural to immerse oneself into a story completely. To him, there was no strangeness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There is only the story and the questions it poses. Is the dishonored life unworthy? Aren’t the only categories ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? This story and many like it challenged my assumptions, both about how important I was and about what makes for a good life. The author of Sir Gawain was neither outdated nor silly. He was a wise soul, who told a really good story.

medieval windowBeauty comes in many forms. ‘Old stuff’ can give you eyes that are able to see more of it. When approaching a story like Virgil’s Aeneid, there is no question that the work is important. It has lasted so long for one thing, and generations of people were required (or chose) to read it. Therefore, there has to be something about it that was beautiful, meaningful, or both. You could go in thinking of the poem as Roman propaganda (extolling the greatness of Rome’s legendary founder), but even so, the artistry of this propaganda far outstrips anything in our post-WWII culture. American propaganda is fast food by comparison. You could go in thinking of the Aeneid as Rome’s answer to Homer. Either way, these poems are not like a Harry Potter (a modern epic style). Harry Potter is built on easy-to consume thrill. The ancient epics are slow-building and intricate, and once your eyes can begin to see the detail and intricacy, then it becomes more evident in the world around. That is what happened for me.

A final reason why I read ‘old stuff’ is a historical one. It puts the world I live in in context. Medieval writers did not believe in a random universe, and neither do I. Therefore, tracing the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, or Machiavelli, or the Beowulf poet give me some context for understanding what ideas drove my cultural ancestors to do the things they did. Ideas spurred actions: Charlemagne’s installation as the Holy Roman Emperor, King Alfred’s establishment of English Common Law, or the dismantling of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain. These events have had lasting consequences, and literature allows me to have some idea of what the men of those days were thinking.

I do read more than just ‘old stuff.’ In fact, I will read almost anything once. Every so often, though, I return to the old things for their beautiful otherness, and there find a mixture of beauty and silliness, but I had to appreciate reading it before I could see how that could be.

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