At the beginning of summer, there's usually a summer reading segment on NPR news with the reporter talking with someone famous or somewhat famous and what they plan to read over the summer. The conversation heads in the direction of reading something fairly heavy like a history, a treatise, or a novel that is "enlightening in its construction." Stuff that I appreciate but equate to reading in a quiet corner of a library with the smells of ancient tomes around me. I can't imagine taking something like "The Ins, Outs, Whys, Hows, and Wheretofores of Crimean War Buglers and How They Kept Their Polish" to the beach. So during the summer I usually look for lighter fare: a good mystery; an engrossing fantasy; a recommended novel. I'll look for stories on baseball players and stroll through the stacks of my local library to see if something catches my eye.
It must be the whiff of school that drew me to The Norton Anthology of Western Literature Vol. 2.
I remember reading the first volume in high school. It had thin pages and weighed a minor ton. It had Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer, Ovid, Virgil, Homer, and a whole flock of ancient and Middle Age pieces up to Shakespeare's Hamlet. The class that used it only used a tiny chunk of the tome, but it opened my eyes to the variety of literature that just those periods created. I even entertained the idea of getting a copy of my own because it would show that I was a broad-minded reader of the classics. But I never did.
The sight of the book on the shelf reminded me of that book and high school. I looked through the table of contents and saw it contained many excerpts from different eras that are commonly referred to in various other sources. Voltaire, Racine, Moliere, Baudelaire, Keats, Swift, Samuel Johnson, Poe, Tennyson. From the Elizabethan period to the 20th century. Printed on thin paper and weighing a minor ton. It drew me to it and before I knew it I had it under my arm, mine for 3 weeks.
Now three weeks is not enough time to take in this much literature by any means. We're talking over 2000 pages of works that have withstood the test of time. One could skim it but one should savor it. Read a piece and think about it. What was it that made it stay with us while contemporaries vanished into the dust? Why should we read this now? And how can I take this tome and prop it up so that it stays open while I'm knitting, especially at the beginning and the end?