How Reading Augustine and Dante Changed Me

I read Augustine’s Confessions 17 years ago. Recovering from having my wisdom teeth extracted, I lay on my bed, my mouth sore, trying to concentrate, and I didn’t retain much.

13 years later, I reread it, but this time in the company of colleagues and students in a reading group. We met Friday afternoons from 3-4:30, the dead time of the academic week when faculty struggle to accomplish anything productive.

Over the months that we discussed each section, I was privy to a conversation that I hadn’t experienced in I’m not sure how long. Here was a text over 1,600 years old, and while reading in preparation for each meeting, I felt as though I were tiptoeing into an ocean. Here was someone wrestling with what it means to be human. What it means to have desires. What it means to be a being bound in time. What it means to be love God.

I marked up the text extensively, just as a good English professor should. I knew there was so much to revisit in the book, and even now, writing these thoughts, I’m drawn to reread it.

On those Friday afternoons, during which I talked only occasionally, I found myself caught up in a growing love for God. My view of God was altering, was becoming deeper. But here’s what else started to change: my reading preferences. When this same group read through Dante’s The Divine Comedy, my habits shifted further.

I now prefer books whose authors are deceased. Part of this decision is based upon quality, yet I’m not insisting that simply because something is old that it is, de facto, good. Rather, I am instead moving into a personal reading and study of what are referred to as “Great Texts.” Why?

My academic area is Creative Writing (at the undergrad, MFA, and PhD levels). Most of the texts I studied in my creative-writing related courses were contemporary authors. Some of these authors visited campus. In my literature classes I, I focused on American Literature since the Civil War.

As an undergrad, I did take a Greek Myth and Literature course (The Iliad, The Odyssey, Aristophanes). I read most of the Inferno during a Western Civ course. I took a History of Philosophy course, some Honors Seminars (Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Sartre), so I read some books that what would be labeled “Great Texts.” But it has been in the last four years or so that I have felt this lack, this gap in my reading and my knowledge, and having tasted what these texts can offer readers, my appetite has been whet.

I read the Aeneid last year (new for me).

I read The Brothers Karamazov last year (also new for me).

I’m currently working on reading all of Walden.

Over Christmas I ordered books by five authors: Aeschylus, Anselm, Aristophanes, Plato, and Thucydides. I’ve already begun reading Anselm.

Of course, I’ll still read contemporary literature, but it doesn’t hold the place in my reading preferences that it once did. I want to give the majority of my attention to works that have withstood the test of time, that have managed to survive reviews and discussions for decades, centuries, and millennia. I am hungry for the rich sustenance that Great Texts provide, knowing there’s much to chew on.

from Measuring Time: “A Little Goodwill”

Of all the pieces in Measuring Time & Other Stories (out this fall from Wiseblood Books), this is the only story not set in the Midwest. Rather, it is set in Portland, Oregon, where my wife and I lived for three years. This is also the story in the collection that most explicitly involves religious faith, and the lack thereof.

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Season of Refreshment

For the season of Lent, I removed Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from my phone. I also didn’t use those platforms on other devices or my computer. I did make an exception for a handful of scheduled posts and tweets related to some lecture and readings I gave.

I chose this particular fast with the hope that I would be more present in whatever I was doing, would be more attentive to those around me. Going into this fast I feared missing out on “important things.” As it turned out, however, my fear was unfounded.

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