A couple of weeks ago, I disconnected my Facebook account to carve out space in my day to read more. Not that reading online isn’t lovely (I hope you like this blog for instance) but time is finite, and I agree with Farhan Thawar‘s advice at the recent Nspire Discovery Series “The Modern Tools of Creation” that it is important to prioritise your reading, so “if something is temporal, unless it’s the Harvard Business Review, just stop reading it and do something else”. He explained what he meant by saying “my own reading hierarchy is books>mags>blogs>twitter, and I always have a book with me. If you check my bag at any point, even tonight, you would find one there.”
And while I still love Twitter, I’ve been taken aback by the difference more books and less social media has made to my happiness level. When I first moved to Toronto, I couldn’t get a library card right away because I didn’t have any paper bills yet, and then when I finally started receiving mail, I was so swamped with actual school reading and work that I just never made it out to the University of Toronto libraries or a Toronto Public Library branch to discover new book friends. But this all changed with the new semester, and in the past couple of weeks I’ve read two lovely books. I’m amazed at how this simple addition has made such a huge difference to daily joy, and my ability to be critical of myself and aware of my own shortcomings while still being kind and hopeful about progress on things I find difficult.
The first one is Louisa May Alcott’s book Work: The Story of Experience, which is beautiful and sad and honest, and very different from Little Women and Jo’s Boys (or is it Little Men? I can never remember what the other books about Jo are called) because the main character goes through so much, and though it manages to be a very realistic story, I’m not sure it’s an altogether happy one. But it is a book that is full of energy and courage and beautiful language, and very hard to put down while reading, so it’s not a long read. Most of all, the main character is so intent on making something for herself and on seeing life, that the book serves as a jolt of energy if you’re feeling a bit lazy.
The other book is George Elliot’s Middlemarch, which at 900 pages, took a couple of weeks to read, but it is well worth the investment in time. At a week long Islamic retreat I attended in December Shaykh Hamza Yusuf said “You can never offend a book. A book may offend you, and put you in your place, but it doesn’t work the other way around” and truly, that description applies to Middlemarch. The author is sharply observant and intensely clever, and there were many times while reading that it felt like I was being thoroughly scolded through the medium of different characters, as each person in the book is an example of what to do and not do as you grow and face different people and situations. I benefited a great deal from the read.
Aside from all her sharp observations about people and society and the human heart in general though, the book is an incredible testament to the author’s intellectual gifts. She writes confidently under the pen name George Eliot on a dazzling variety of topics, from love and politics to medicine and art to everything in between and it is difficult to imagine how people would have reacted if they knew she was a woman. I’m also curious how she managed to learn so much during such a different time period, especially when in so many parts of the books, she makes reference to people’s beliefs about the appropriate limits of feminine knowledge.
In sum though, these two books have been wonderful reminders about why I love classics. The command of the English language, the self reflexive characters, the deep insight into the human heart, the wide canvas on which relationships and people are examined, the desire to seek goodness, the sharp wit, it’s all there, and you leave a book sorry to have left good friends, and hopeful with resources to address your own life. I’m so glad we have libraries to transport us to these beautiful worlds of learning.
And so dear reader, help me along with my self education. What books do you think are must reads? Do you have favourite books you can return time and time again to pull out fresh new inspiration? I’d love to hear your thoughts.