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The value of a book lies in the author's ability to convey meaning. This is the most basic—and in recent years most overlooked—fact about writing. Words on the page must tell us something or they're worthless. Experimenters are free to try new methods, but if the result is empty drivel their creation will end up just another misguided novelty.
Almost equally important is the value of the author's message. Anyone can understand a cheap romance novel or mystery thriller, but if there's a message it's typically trite. Paradise Lost takes more work, but the beauty of Milton's style and the depth of his perception and observations on human (and divine, and demonic) nature have steeled readers to make the effort for centuries.
Which implies—reading is not merely for entertainment. The art of reading to empty the mind is not brand-new (as any perusal of titles in the Rare Old Books room of your local mega-bookstore will reveal), though with the increasing ease of publication it has grown. People have always looked to get the same experience from books that comes from watching a TV show. But there is a still better way.
Reading-to-Broaden-the-Soul is even older than reading-to-induce-a-comatose-state. Each person that comes by it makes the discovery in a different way, whether by hearing a line from a Keats poem, or finding a derelict copy of All Quiet on the Western Front on a discount shelf and reading the whole thing in an afternoon, or realizing that Aristophanes is still funny 2400 years later.
Reading the right books is good for us, but it's also enjoyment of the highest and best kind, and both for the same reason: reading great literature is dangerous. You don't get to leave the last page of Crime and Punishment unchanged. After hundreds of pages with David Copperfield it's a different You that peers back from the mirror. King Arthur will pull apart your insides and rearrange them with the violence of a medieval warlord.
You won't find a lot of rainbows and sunshine here. At least, you won't find them alone, certainly not without the lightning storms that always come first. You'll find humanity, with all the bloodshed and terror and sorrow and weakness and confusion of the race. But you'll also find joy and beauty and goodness and comfort, as much as any of those things are part of life.
These are some of the best poems, novels, plays and philosophical treatises ever written. Hopefully you'll find some enjoyment, though if it's not all as "fun" as you expected, try adjusting your expectations before starting a burn pile. Hopefully, you'll grow a little with each Boo Radley, Romeo Montague, Esther Summerson, Starbuck, and Rose of Sharon Joad you encounter.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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