“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Perhaps at some point you’ve heard a variation of that adage. Although a bit disturbing, this little saying conveys a good moral — the biggest challenges are best tackled when broken down into small steps.
Recently, I’ve found that this strategy is particularly applicable when reading classic works of literature.
I’m a history major, so I usually have to read about 100 pages of material per day when I’m at school. Basically, I consume a steady diet of non-fiction.
Recently, though, when I began researching graduate school and senior-thesis topics, I felt a sudden craving for something other than books on economics and policy. In other words, I needed to turn on my imagination and rediscover literature. Specifically, I wanted to begin reading the classics, as opposed to the latest James Patterson thriller.
I can’t speak for all college students, but it seems that a large percentage of my university peers don’t read for fun. They have so much coursework that doing more reading seems unappetizing. Alternatively, even if reading seems like a decent pastime, it can be difficult to build unstructured time, free from the distractions of electronics, into one’s daily schedule.
These are valid points. Still, I found during this past semester that the university environment can be highly conducive to pleasure reading.
While on campus, students have access to massive libraries. Building time for reading into one’s schedule — in my case, in the half hour or so before I go to sleep — is a good way to develop self-discipline. Finally, although students keep busy, they generally have more free time in college than they do after entering the workforce.
If students don’t tackle the great works of world literature now, who’s to say they will have the time in the future?
But where to start? Marveling at the thousands of volumes in the library’s fiction section, I realized that I could get lost in a sea of books, much the way I tend to get lost on Wikipedia. You’ve probably had similar experiences on Wikipedia: You start on one page, but soon you’ve clicked so many other hyperlinks that you cannot remember what you sought in the first place. My literary survey therefore needed structure.
Rather than looking at some online list of the greatest novels, I talked to friends and professors, asking them for their recommendations. In the process, I realized more than ever before that reading need not be a solitary endeavor. On the contrary, reading can be highly social, providing the basis for great conversations and forging new friendships.
So what terrific books have I unearthed so far in this word-of-mouth literary survey? Truthfully, I haven’t gotten too far yet (the drawback of final-exam season). Still, I have come across two life-changing books, which frankly should be required reading for every college student.
The first book is Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. Although technically non-fiction (the book is a collection of correspondence), Letters reads like a sort of prose poem. Rilke counsels his younger friend not only about how to write better, but also about love, loneliness, depression and getting older — themes that feel very timely for the modern college student. Letters can be read in about 75 minutes, and those 75 minutes will be some of the most profoundly moving of your life.
The second book is Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Set in India during the lifetime of the Buddha, the novel follows a rich young man who takes a convoluted path to spiritual enlightenment. Although Siddhartha is not entirely historically accurate, the emotional struggles which Siddhartha experiences ring absolutely true. A slim 100 pages or so, Siddhartha still feels like the portrait of a life, and Hesse imbues his words with a lifetime of psychological detail.
I started reading regularly for fun. What I didn’t really expect was that I’d encounter true wisdom in these books. There is genuine insight in a Rilke or Hesse text — insight into the human condition, into maturation, into finding love — which you don’t find in a suspense novel. You certainly don’t find it in 50 Shades of Grey.
What comes next? Proust, I suppose, and then the Dublin books by James Joyce. And after that? War and Peace. Shakespeare. Marquez. Murakami. Plus whatever recommendations I receive from friends and professors along the way.
You eat the elephant one bite at a time. You read the canon one book — or, more simply, one page — at a time. In the process, you get more than a break from homework. You make friends, you give yourself time to relax and you glimpse, if only for a moment, the wisdom of the ages.
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