The Value of a Good Book

The legendary English philosopher John Locke wrote that “Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company, and reflection must finish him.” As I enter the final six months of my Dartmouth experience, it is almost impossible not to take time to reflect on the educational and formative journey that began in the fall of 2014. While the goal of these four years is, at the end of the day, education, I wholeheartedly concur with Locke that without good company, reflection, and reading, I – and the rest of my classmates – would not be as inquisitive and intellectual as we are today.

In high school, my horizons as a reader were not at all broad; most of my time had been spent reading Harry Potter; when I was not occupied with those, I tended to focus on other fantasy works, such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Legendarium, or followed the cryptic adventures of Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s bestselling novels. The many works of William Shakespeare and classical Greek epics proved to be of little interest to me; they were difficult to read, and their plots simply were not as interesting as the other works I read. It was not until my junior year of high school that I experienced a real interest in one of our assigned works; William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was captivating, posing numerous questions about the basic nature of mankind while simultaneously connecting with my more primal and innate sense of adventure. I underwent a similar experience my senior year with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw; this time, I became fascinated by how a single sentence could be so controversial, and how the roots of modern horror indeed stretch back to Victorian times.

Upon matriculation, I did not intend to devote significant time to the study of literature; instead, it was more of a series of opportunities that simply fell into my lap. My freshman fall, I failed to read a single book; it was not until my first winter break, just after Thanksgiving, that I cracked open a novel that I had already read once before; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. On my second read-through, it struck a much different chord; before, I had never really taken the time to examine the larger questions regarding humanity and its place in the world. Do we have any real importance? What would happen when the fire of man’s morality and civility finally burned out? I think Locke would have been fascinated by the question. Of course, it was not simply the themes and plot that captivated me; McCarthy’s masterful prose is indeed more beautiful than the finest painting in any of the world’s greatest museums. The Road, to this day, is still my favorite novel. My freshman spring, I also read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which again proved to be one of the most masterful pieces of writing ever composed.

It was not until my sophomore winter that I rededicated myself to reading. That term, I took two classes on literature: one on the German novella, and another on the masterpieces of the Russian tradition. Both were small in scope, but wide in their breadth; I read countless books that term, but two came to the forefront. E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Golden Pot, a romantic fantasy novella with an intricate, mystical plot returned me to my roots as a fantasy geek, and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children, a scopic tale of generational paradigm shifts in a growing Russia. Since those first literature classes, I continued to explore this interest in literature through a major in German Studies and a minor in Russian, with focus on the literary tradition. Since my sophomore winter, I have explored nineteenth century German pulp fiction, twentieth century Soviet literature, and the collected works of the legendary Leo Tolstoy. Before I knew it, one of my major focuses in my university studies had become literature; I had never expected this, and I am grateful that the cards fell in this way.

The Review has debated the merits of the studying humanities as opposed to the quantitative sciences many times in the past. Generally, however, we have held consensus that one absolutely ought to have significant exposure to the Western canon. With respect to Locke, I absolutely believe that my experience in college has been enhanced beyond what words can describe by my focus on and appreciation for great literature. It is for this reason that The Review continues to publish its annual book review issue: a mind is always sharpened by a good book, fiction or nonfiction. I hope that all readers of our publication take the time to acknowledge our thoughts on the books we read during this year’s Winterim, and hope that it may serve as a helpful guide to future considerations of what to read.