Although I’ve never been to a literary cocktail party, I have a certain game I imagine playing at one. (The truth is, I’ve never been to any kind of cocktail party, which is somewhat disappointing. As a youngster, I’d imagined that cocktail parties, like falling into a pit of quicksand, would be a regular part of adult life, and that I would be expected to know how to behave in both situations. Obviously, I was misinformed.)
At any rate, the game goes like this. A bunch of well-read people get together and confess what books they should have read but never have. It would, for those of us who teach literature for a living, be a daring game, one in which public humiliation might lie in wait for us. Who would want to admit, for example, that they had never actually read The Grapes of Wrath? Might the heavens open up, allowing peals of scandalized laughter to descend, if one were to admit, in public, that one’s copy of The Sound and the Fury had never actually been opened? It seemed to me an amusing game to play in my mind, something like Truth or Dare for grown-ups. In an alternate version of the game, I imagine myself going through life with a large deck of cards, each of which has a title printed in large, Gothic letters on its back declaring my inadequacy: Catch-22. Slaughterhouse Five. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ulysses. The list goes on and on.
The other day, I began to work at removing one of the cards from my deck of failure. This did not occur, however, as a determined plan at self-improvement. I am far beyond that stage in my life, having settled into a lazy, perhaps defeatist, sense of who I am and what I can do. Rather, it all began with an invitation to visit a friend’s high school classroom to discuss a play I’d written about C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. The class had been reading The Screwtape Letters, and, to prepare for my visit, I reread the book.
Lewis was a gifted satirist, there’s no doubt about it. His characterization of Screwtape, the devil who gives advice to his nephew Wormwood, instructing him on how to secure the soul of his “patient,” is brilliant, and I found myself wondering how he had been able to create such an enjoyable character out of a devil. The answer came quickly enough: Lewis had, after all written a short book called A Preface to Paradise Lost. He must have known the poem intimately. And, although I’d never read Milton’s epic poem in its entirety, I’d read bits of it–enough to teach it to college sophomores in the British Literature survey classes I regularly taught. (Another guilty confession: I’ve taught the poem, yet never read all of it.) I guessed, and I think I’m right, that Lewis’s depiction of Screwtape owes a good deal to Milton’s depiction of Satan.
But the question remains: why had I never read Paradise Lost? After all, I’d been teaching it for decades. The omission is nothing short of scandalous. Actually, back in graduate school, I had tried to sign up for an entire class on Milton, but the class was oversubscribed, and we students were required to apply to take it by submitting a letter stating why we thought we should be allowed into it. My letter simply said I knew next to nothing about Milton, that I expected that I would have to teach his work, and that I thought that was a good enough reason to be admitted to the class.
And so I never read the whole poem. It turns out that I had gleaned enough information from my own undergraduate days to fumble through a few class days on Paradise Lost when I began to teach English literature, and so I just relied on that. Over the years, a colleague introduced me to a few of Milton’s poems (notably “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”), and then, much later, gave me his Milton texts when he retired and cleaned out his office, but they stayed on my shelf, treasured more because they reminded me of my colleague than for any interest I had in reading them.
And then one of my former students took a class on Milton, and suggested we read Paradise Lost together. Neither of us had the time, however, and the plan fell by the wayside. But apparently the idea stayed with me, because last week, as soon as I finished The Screwtape Letters, I dove into Paradise Lost, forcing myself to progress through it. I was helped by the fact that I was teaching Shakespeare, so the language wasn’t nearly as foreign as it could have been. When I found my attention wandering, bored by elaborate rhetorical constructions and erudite footnotes, I read Milton’s words out loud, and this kept me on track. I kept plodding through the poem, line by line, book by book, not worrying whether I was understanding all of it. I studiously ignored the footnotes, for the most part, but read my colleague’s hand-written marginal notes with affection.
And now I can say that I have read Paradise Lost, and that it wasn’t all that bad. I enjoyed parts of it. I hated the parts that were clearly anti-feminist, wishing someone else–maybe Ursula LeGuin or Virginia Woolf?–had dared to write Eve’s side of the story, since Milton had covered Adam’s point of view so thoroughly and unfairly. But as for filling in this gap in my education, I don’t feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The heavens did not open as I finished reading the last lines of the poem. The Angel Raphael did not come down and pat me on the back. Nor did the archangel Michael arrive with a flaming sword to celebrate my victory over the text. I simply read about Adam and Eve departing Eden, sighed, and closed the book.
Did I learn anything? Just this: those things we put off because they seem too difficult are often not that difficult after all. Perhaps other people want to make us feel that they are difficult so as to make themselves feel smarter, or more worthy, than we are. In all likelihood, they aren’t. But I realize now that reading is a skill that we must train for–much like long-distance running– and I believe that as a society our reading endurance is steadily declining. We are clearly losing the taste for, and consequently the ability to, read long and rambling texts, settling instead for shorter and easier ones, and this will have serious consequences for our intellectual and public life in the coming years. Nevertheless, I believe that if we tackle our reading with confidence and optimism–if we keep to our task, pushing forward one line, even one word, at a time–we can make it through even the densest of texts.
The best part of the whole experience is that I’m now ready to discuss Paradise Lost with my former student. And for this, rather than for finally reading the whole poem, I think C.S. Lewis would be proud of me.