We Are Not Alone
We read to know we are not alone. That is something a number of great writers have been trying to tell us at different stages of our lives.
I am not sure if I was four, five or six when I encountered The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but I remember it was read to my class at school by Miss Power, whose voice was like serenity poured on Christmas snow. I suppose I was in love with her, but the 30 year age gap was an issue in those days. I ran home from school and asked my mother to buy the book for me. Good Lord, I still remember the smell and the feel and almost the fear of opening up C. S. Lewis' great, grand story of four children, a magical land, talking animals and endless adventure. It seemed as if I could hardly breathe as I read it
… I had no idea...that the entire Narnia series were works of Christian allegory and that the seeds of fiath would flourish many years later ...
It's the first actual book I can recall reading after graduating from the Janet and John series that taught British children in the 1960s how to read and write. I'm sure today the white, heterosexist nature of Janet, John and their middle-class lives would cause terrible offence to all sorts of people. Perhaps "Janet and John Visit the Human Rights Commission" would help smooth the way. C. S. Lewis certainly did. I had no idea then that Lewis was a Christian, that the book and indeed the entire Narnia series were works of Christian allegory and that the seeds of faith that would flourish many years later had been planted in me by that debut leap into the pool of literary wandering. To some this might make Lewis and his works sound somewhat sinister. To me they were and still are exquisite conduits into a far more exciting world than that which we see around us.
By the time I was 14 I was reading autobiographies of soccer players and graphic war novels by Sven Hassel. We're supposed to go all mushy and pretentious about Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye when we discuss the 14-year-old reader, and of course I read the thing, but for me it was football and shooting. Friends would reveal that on page 154 of some story of Nazi storm troopers slaughtering Soviet infantry there was a swear word or a sex scene. Thus was the innocence of the era. I was also 14 when history changed my life. I can't recommend one book but a genre for every teenager. Without an understanding of history we have no foundation in the past, no roots in a ground that gives us stability and meaning. We're like someone who jumps from stone to stone across a river but never pauses to keep his balance and soon falls into the water. There has to be a context to what we are, where we live and how we behave.
For me it was England Under the Tudors by G. R. Elton. Not the most inspiring title and with nothing like as much nudity as The Tudors on television. Yet this long text by a Cambridge academic whose thesis about the Reformation and the emerging Protestant state I now wholly reject jolted me from a sleep of complacency. History was a living, breathing creature and we could fight it, watch it, be excited by its movement and roar. I read everything by Elton -- an uncle of Ben Elton but not usually as funny -- and even wrote to the man. A 14-year-old writing to an internationally acclaimed intellectual about the character of the 16th-century politician Sir Richard Rich. He wrote back a beautiful and encouraging letter.
By 40 I had outgrown ghost-written sports books and sensationalist war novels. I'd seen war for real and it wasn't very sensational at all. It's 90 percent utter boredom, 10 percent sheer terror. Actually soccer is in some ways very similar. At 40 we should, of course, have read almost everything or at least pretend to have done so. While I've read some of the ancients, many of the 19th-century classics and a whole chunk of 20th-century literature, I know I am a better person, a better writer, a better me for having read and reread, among others, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Ronald Knox. Most of all, at 40, assuming one hasn't before, we should be reading G. K. Chesterton.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the charging, shining knight of common sense. From the late 1890s until his death in 1936 he was arguably the finest journalist in the English language and the author of fiction -- Father Brown, The Man Who Was Thursday -- and nonfiction -- The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy -- that is as pertinent and biting today as it was a century ago.
Chesterton on the fashionable nationalism of the Edwardian age: "My country, right or wrong, is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, my mother, drunk or sober." On literature: "A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author." On economics: "A citizen can hardly distinguish between a tax and a fine, except that the fine is generally much lighter" and "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."
At 40 we have left youth behind and begin the muddy slog toward the start of middle age. Mortality becomes reality, and we contemplate the permanent things, the first things. Chesterton explores the great truths but does so with fun; his lance is truth but it is tipped with mischief. Few authors have relished life and, as he would have put it, the extraordinary within the ordinary, as much as this giant of a man. Enormous in stature, gigantic in genius; it was his joy in existence that liberated him and empowered him to write not only about the commonplace but about the afterlife too. What could be more common, he wrote, than the life of the world to come?
The final stages of our time should be a preparation for that world to come. It's of little use recommending the Bible to those who are determined to avoid it, but perhaps some of the spiritual and literary sons of Scripture -- Newman, Aquinas, Francis de Sales -- might tempt. Aside from the sacred, as I reach the final years I will read in one long sitting the novels of Patrick O'Brian. I've read most of the 20 Aubrey-Maturin books, but the gaps between have been too long and I've lost the perfect thread of what many would argue is the most supreme historical fiction of modern times.
O'Brian writes of Nelson's navy and the lives of two central characters and their wars, loves, desires, pain, joy, triumphs and failures. I resisted for years because I thought the books were for sea fetishists and, to be candid, because I was a literary snob. So wrong. This is not escapism but a new journey, written with an insurmountable grace, into a world past. As such it is the quintessence of reading. We read to know we are not alone. Which is something that Lewis, the great historians, Chesterton and the rest have long been telling us.
Michael Coren is an author, commentator and TV host. Web site: www.michaelcoren.com.
Originally published in the National Post, August 18, 2009.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca. C30SE09