Chapel Hill: Opinion

July 18, 2014

Duncan Shaw: Make time for the Great Books

In preparation for submitting information on an application for a new job, I recently reviewed my college transcript.

In preparation for submitting information on an application for a new job, I recently reviewed my college transcript.

It has been 30 years since I took my last undergraduate class, and as I saw, I took a lot of sciences. In terms of the current push for college students to pursue so-called STEM majors (science-technology-engineering-math), I devoured that first letter and had a healthy dollop of the last.

For in college I was pre-med, grinding it out for top grades and stuffing my mind with biology and chemistry and physics. I finished with a B.S. in biology, and also ended up with enough chemistry classes – seven – to probably have minored in that if I had officially pursued it. Overall I received good enough grades to get into medical school.

But having studied so much science already, I couldn’t see myself on that same treadmill for another four or seven or 10 years. You see, I had a sudden, strong change of heart. The sweet call of something else pulled at me: take a rest; travel abroad; immerse myself in a heady pursuit I had hugely neglected as an undergraduate. This last part of that sweet song was literature, aka “The Great Books.”

So I began my “big read” my graduation year, 1984 – including George Orwell’s great book of that name, one so prophetic in our anxious age of surveillance – and have continued this kind of reading in the three decades since. This effort has been helped along the last 10 of these years by living in Hillsborough, a cerebral place full of writers and readers.

By immersing yourself in the writings of Western civilization’s greatest minds – our genius literary creators – I believe that you put yourself in a position to see, and feel, a part of their souls. And I believe this repeated experience over years and years helps shape the reader’s soul – what the poet John Keats called “soul-making.”

If you make an honest effort, opening your mind and heart fully, how can you come away from reading something like Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” without feeling awe and wonder – and without a sense of gratitude for our supremely expressive English language?

The same can be said of reading Herman Melville’s masterpiece, “Moby Dick,” one whale of a book not only in length but also in power and beauty; also, what I believe to be even more beautiful, “The Great Gatsby,” whose author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, loved Keats’ poetry (e.g., “Ode to a Nightingale”).

For their soul-shaping depth of feeling and sublime vision, these and other Great Books are must-reads. They must be experienced, they must be lived.

So, if you are the hard-sciences type as I was for several years, I implore you (with dramatic intensity) to step away from those studies and for a while at least, sojourn in the world of The Bard, or Jane Austen, or Hemingway or ... The point is to see and to feel – for as Keats said, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”.

Duncan Shaw lives in Hillsborough.

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