I only have two self-imposed rules when it comes to reading. One: If I don’t like a book, I won’t force myself to finish it. I came about this rule from studying literature in college, which meant having to read a lot in order to get good grades (graduated with a 3.79 GPA). I enjoyed reading most works, a majority I felt indifferent about them, and I absolutely detested a select few. An anecdote to those detested few comes from when I was reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I can’t exactly remember why I didn’t like it, I do remember it having to do with the main character annoying me, but I grew impatient with the character and the writing style of Woolf (think purple prose and that’s why) and what I ended up doing was literally throwing the book across the room. Unfortunately, I had to finish reading Mrs. Dalloway in order to get a good grade on it but it was then that I made a promise to myself that once I graduated college I would never force myself to finish a book I didn’t like. I’ve stuck to that rule and I will continue to stick to it. Two: I will read On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri at least once a calendar year. I’m not sure why I want to explain myself to the world as to why I follow such a rule but here I go anyways.
If it wasn’t for On the Road, I probably wouldn’t be such a voracious reader and may not even have a college degree. It was because of On the Road that I truly began to read and to enjoy it to the point where the activity has become an integral part of my life and my identity.
The first time I had ever heard of On the Road was in 1997 when I was seventeen. I was high on something, probably weed, and I was at a friend’s house watching the biopic The Doors. During the scene in which the band is high on peyote in some desert, I uttered out the line of, “I wish I could just live on the road and be free” to which my friend began to tell me about some book called On the Road by some guy named Jack Kero-something or another. Another friend of mine, who was present at that same place and time, ended up buying the book and reading it. He didn’t like it so he gave it to me. I opened it up and began to read it.
Up until that point in my life, I did not like reading books. Sure, there were a few books out there I did enjoy, Nineteen Eighty-Four and To Kill a Mockingbird being two of them, but I always found books to be tedious and boring. I had, for some inane reason, conjured up the notion that all books had to be written like Shakespeare or the Brönte sisters or Jane Austen and I found that style, at that time in my life, to be absolutely boring and banal. But as I read deeper and deeper into On the Road, the more I was amazed that a book could contain things such as smoking marijuana, infidelity, drinking binges, soliciting prostitutes, and dead-beat fatherhood and what amazed me more was that the story, which was based on true event, happened in the late 1940s, and the book was published in the 1950s. On the Road had shattered my idiotic preconceived notion of how books were supposed to be written and that such things could be written during the time of the nuclear family and Leave It To Beaver-type values. On the Road completely reshaped my idea of literature.
I can’t recall what year it was when I imposed the rule on myself of reading On the Road once a calendar year but I can say with some certainty I’ve been abiding by that rule for at least ten years. There are some years, like this year (2016), when I read On the Road multiple times. There is a comfort to reading it; like coming back home. It was with this book that I learned to appreciate literature and the art of reading, it’s my roots, and it’s incredibly important to me because of that.
When I was in college, I even wrote a final paper challenging my professor’s prompt about On the Road. Honestly, when I think about it, if I hadn’t been reading the book so much and it becoming such an integral part of my life, there would probably be no way I would ever dare challenge a professor. But after I had read On the Road the first time in 1997, I knew I was hooked on Kerouac but then that blossomed into something bigger. From Kerouac I found Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Diane DiPrima and Carolyn Cassady and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder and Amiri Baraka, just to name a few; furthermore, I became infatuated with the real story of the Beat Generation but especially with the biography of Jack Kerouac. It was studying Kerouac and the Beat Generation before I entered college (I started college when I was 27) that I knew I could challenge a professor with a sound thesis and argument and I had plenty of proof to back up my argument since half of a bookshelf of mine is filled with Beat literature and criticisms. When the day came for the professor to hand back our final papers, my teaching assistant gave everybody back their papers but mine to me. I asked her about this and she told me to see the professor after class. So I nervously waited for the end of class to come and when it did, to my surprise, the professor gave me an ‘A’ on the paper. He had wanted to see me because he told me the T.A. wanted to give me a lower grade simply because I challenged the professor but he liked my thesis and the fact I had challenged him. That professor and I ended up becoming quite close and I would later find out from him On the Road was what led him from pursuing a medical degree and changing to a literature degree, much to the disappointment of his father. To find a camaraderie with a professor under such a unique experience from one book speaks volumes of the transformative power of literature and, in my humble opinion, the power of On the Road.
I now own four editions of On the Road. My original copy, which I obtained in 1997, was from the 1994 printing and I am sure is now out of print. I no longer read this book as I don’t want it to fall apart anymore than it already is. I have a 2003 print edition that I read from now as well as first print and a pre-print editions of On the Road: The Original Scroll, which I do not read from anymore as well. Between owning four editions of On the Road and reading it every year, it may seem like it is overkill and I would be bored with reading it so much but this is hardly the case. It seems, and yes this is cliched (but true), every time I read On the Road I discover something in it or about it I had never noticed before. To me, this is a mark of great literature. Ironically, On the Road isn’t even my favorite work by Kerouac, Big Sur is (but that’s a tail for another time), and yet I keep reading it and enjoying it and being surprised by it. With that happening at least once every year, why would I ever want to stop reading it?
I think it’s safe to call The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri an English teacher’s book, meaning that it is something only an English/Literature teacher would enjoy reading. Yes, I know that is an assumption but it is one of those types of books. I tried to read it once when I was a teenager but it went right over my head. It was only until I studied it in college that I really fell in love with it.
I was lucky enough to be able to study abroad in Rome, Italy during my senior year of college. There was only one literature class offered there, which was Italian Medieval and Renaissance Literature. The first book we read was The Inferno. My professor was a short, old Italian lady who knew everything there was to know about The Inferno and The Divine Comedy as a whole. She would bring two copies of the book, one in English and the other in Italian. She would always explain the Cantos to us using the English version (the John Ciardi translation) and then she would read it to us in Italian. Let me say there is nothing like hearing Dante being read in Italian by an Italian. It certainly wasn’t the first time I had studied The Inferno but it was in Italy, with it being taught by an Italian, that I truly learned the brilliance and the genius of The Divine Comedy and Dante himself.
With that being said, there is way too much material to cover as to why there is nothing but genius in The Divine Comedy but I will say these short, brief points: One, Dante codified the Italian language, thus when people today learn Italian they learn Florentine Italian because that’s what Dante spoke and wrote in; Two, the politics involved with the story are brilliantly portrayed using heavy metaphor and it takes a lot of studying to truly understand and appreciate. There is so much to learn about Italian, especially Florentine, history and politics in order to really understand what Dante was writing about but once a person does learn, The Divine Comedy truly comes alive; Three, the transcendental nature of the poem is what I love the most about it and it is a heavy theme throughout the entire poem. Whereas most people could be fascinated by reading about a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the idea that a person has to go through Hell to get to Heaven may be overlooked and maybe overlooked too much.
I personally became intrigued with transcendentalism when I had read Walden by Henry David Thoreau when, yet again, I was in college. I like to think transcendentalism speaks to me on a personal level simply because I have experienced so much hell in my life. This feeling really awoke when I read The Divine Comedy. Dante, the protagonist in the epic poem somehow, inexplicably finds himself lost in a dark and foreboding forest at the mid-point of his life. Right away, readers are treated with the metaphor of a mid-life crisis even if it does take place in 1300 C.E. in Florence, Italy. But there is some truth to this metaphor. How many times has a person ever wonder to his or herself , ‘How in the hell did my life end up like this?’ Of course there is no turning back and Dante shows this with the path away from Hell being cut off by the lion, the leopard, and the she-wolf. I’d like to think, even if this is an assumption, that most people have felt that way at least once in their life. I have felt it many times and to be able to relate with a poet who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries speaks volumes of how well Dante wrote and how genius his epic poem is and all of this is from the first canto in the first canticle of the poem. This is what brings me back to The Divine Comedy every year. Every year, it seems, I have gone through some type of major crisis or crises and every year Dante is there to remind me I am going to go through Hell to get to Heaven.
The last time I read The Divine Comedy was in April of 2015 and just this week, the third week of October of 2016, I have begun the journey again with Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice yet again. This year the journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven has many special meanings to me due to my mental health worsening, being hospitalized for three weeks, and going through a very painful breakup with my (now ex) girlfriend of seventeen years. The mid-point of the average lifespan of a man living in the time of Dante was thirty-five and here I am at the age of thirty-six and I can only feel empathy from Dante as if he were speaking directly to me from beyond the grave. But what it really is, that feeling of empathy, is the genius of Dante and The Divine Comedy being a story that is still relevant seven hundred years after its writing. How could a work of literature of such stature and genius go unread for more than a year? To me, it can’t and it shouldn’t.
Some end notes:
- I highly recommend getting any Beat Generation literature or any literature/criticism from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California. City Lights was founded and (still) operated by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and is the authority for Beat literature.
- All of the illustrations from The Divine Comedy I use in this article were drawn by Gustave Doré and I highly recommend purchasing a copy of The Divine Comedy with Doré’s illustrations, which are works of genius in their own right.
- Finally, John Ciardi’s translation of The Divine Comedy is the best to have been published. In the three times I studied The Divine Comedy in college and all of the times I have read it since, Ciardi’s translation, notes, and preludes to each canto in all three canticles is beyond superb. The detailed notes will help any reader at any level appreciate Dante and his work to its proper degree. The entirety of Ciardi’s translation of The Divine Comedy can be purchased from a certain evil corporation.
-Matthew A. Sandusky