Reading is a sanctuary for me. I suspect this is so for most book lovers. In addition to being a sanctuary, reading offers endless amounts of knowledge; endless amounts of emotional, spiritual, and physical experiences. The latter point might strike some as odd but read a book like Hampton Side’s Ghost Soldiers and you may notice yourself feeling physically drained at times.
I guess that is the wonder of reading, the all of the reader’s person is involved. And given that the world, thankfully, has an endless supply of books, one is wise not to miss the classics. It would be rather disingenuous of me to say I’ve read many classics, though I have gobbled up quite a bit of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. I am immensely glad I did not let the length of War and Peace peace deter me. When I read it (it is one of the greatest reads of my life) my only complaint, one I have with all the books I love, is it ended.
My instinct this year is to read more of the classics. I’m not sure why this is, though I have my suspicions. I am getting older and am well aware that the clock runs out, so, if not now, when? And then there is this. I wrote my first play in the 1970s when I was living in Brooklyn near Brooklyn Heights. I reached out to the writer Louis Sheaffer. He’d written a Pulitzer Prize winning two-volume biography of playwright Eugene O’Neill; a wonderful read. I asked him if he’d read my play and he said yes. I week or so later I went to visit him. He was a writer’s writer. Hard working, fully committed to the often exhausting craft that is the act of writing. While there were parts of my play he liked, it needed a lot of work. I asked him what advise he had for me as a writer. His answer remains emblazoned in my mind. “Whatever you want to write, read a lot of it. If you want to write plays, read a lot of plays. Novels, read a lot of novels.” He was right, I’ve learned more about writing from my reading than anywhere else.
And so, why the classics? Because, it is clear to me that writers like Dickens, Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Shakespeare, Defoe, Melville, the Bronte sisters, Twain, Goethe and more, are the greatest teachers. While anything but easy, I love writing, and I want to learn.
And then, of course, there is the sanctuary of books. A place to go that, for the time I am there, I am away from daily life. When you are a human rights advocate, which demands that you hold people, companies, agencies, governments, government officials, publically accountable, you will be targeted. Usually, I have learned, not to your face. This is probably so because those who target you know they can’t win on the facts of the matter. And so they take runs at you behind your back. And while these behaviors a predictable, pointless, and will do anything but silence me, managing them can be exhausting. And so, what better sanctuary than reading a classic?