Adult Life Made Me a Better Reader of the Classics

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Danny Heitman headlined “I’m Revisiting the Books of My Youth”:

Tidying up recently, I took from the shelf my copy of “The Norton Anthology of American Literature” and mended its loose binding, brittle with age after more than four decades. As I reglued the spine and bandaged it with tape, I smiled at the thought that I was lavishing so much care on a volume that, when I’d first used it as a textbook in 1982, had left me cold.

As an avid reader since early childhood who aimed to spend his life with words, I seemed a good fit for the survey class in American lit I took as a college freshman. But I wanted to be a newspaperman, and the musings of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson struck me as far removed from real life. I dutifully plowed through the assigned readings and churned out the term papers, relieved at the end of the semester when I could put the rarified writings of a distant era behind me. I kept the book as an afterthought.

Once I graduated, real life unfolded. Along the way, to my surprise, I discovered that those revered writers from long ago could be wise counsel in navigating life’s turns. As the obligations of marriage and parenthood kept me home more often, I reread passages from Thoreau’s “Walden” for instruction in how to savor small moments outside my doorstep.

In the wake of family deaths, I found Emerson’s quiet resolve after his own losses an inspiration. Dickinson, whose poems remained open to joy as the country careened toward the Civil War, offers me a model in seeking serenity amid social division.

I’m a much better reader of the classics today than I ever could have been at 18. “The trouble with education,” Margaret Ayer Barnes observed in 1930, “is that we always read everything when we’re too young to know what it means. And the trouble with life is that we’re always too busy to reread it later.”

Her remark rings true, and with our kids now grown and our nest mostly empty, I’m trying to make more time to reconnect with authors I met in my youth. My old Norton, worn by the years but still intact, seems destined to see me through.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is editor of Phi Kappa Phi’s Forum magazine.

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