All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
by Brett Randell
I was a stereotypical American kid when it came to reading and literature. When I was younger, I read Goosebumps, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Choose Your Own Adventure stuff, Zoobooks. But once the “coolness,” a.k.a. “awkwardness,” of late middle school kicked in, I pretty much stopped reading. For English classes and exams, I’d gloss over Spark Notes instead of reading the books. I’d scoff at the nerdy novels and watch TV. As I evolved (or devolved) into college Brett, I simply didn’t have the “time.” Reading was “lame.” I had a lot of “beer” to drink. I entered a long phase of my life where I don’t think I read a single book for pleasure.
But after moving to Austin in 2009 to play music, I was sauntering around town and ended up finding one of my favorite bookstores in the world, BookPeople. Inside the store, I came across a giant, paraphrased quote by Mark Twain sprawled on the wall above the Classics section: “Classic. A book which people praise, but don’t actually read.”
At that moment, a volcanic reaction of shame erupted inside me. An inner voice barked, “You uncultured swine! You know nothing, Brett! What the hell have you been doing all this time!?”
The Twain quote rang like a gong, and it made me think about myself and the general public. Besides many avid writers and readers, I felt that most of the population (myself included) didn’t read. Many of us skipped over these classic works, and since so many of the authors and titles are referenced in pop culture, in TV, movies, and cartoons, we believe that we are familiar with them. We often drop words like “Moby Dick,” “Shakespeare,” or “Hemingway” into conversation, without actually having read the work.
That single Twain quote made me realize I was missing out on a giant chunk of reality. I thought about all those high school books I never read. What made these things classics? Why were they so important? Why did they last throughout centuries and, in some cases, millennia? Standing beneath this epic wall of books, I decided then and there, I must read.
Four years later, I’ve slowly been chipping away at that wall. It started with the dark depths of Dante, the epic tales of Homer, then Virgil, Ovid, Dumas, Milton. Then the stark realism of Hemingway, Melville, Marquez. The puzzles of Faulkner. The fractal brilliance of Shakespeare, Bulgakov, Nabokov. The conscious flow of Woolf, Joyce. The layered characters of Austen, Dickens, Wilde. The strange mental landscapes of Kafka, Borges. The poetry of Rimbaud, Thomas, Whitman, Wilde.
The point isn’t to brag—“Look at all these high-brow books I’ve read!”—but to comment on how those high-brow books have changed me. By reading these classics, I’ve noticed a drastic shift in my brain. I’ve felt my vocabulary thicken, my conversations deepen. I’ve developed a better ability to comment on social values, historical events, human psychology and connection.
Most importantly, I’ve felt my appreciation for life and art grow. These authors, who spent their lives crafting, creating, thinking, and sculpting all these marvelous works, have helped me understand and reflect upon what it is to be alive, what it means to be in this human experience. They’ve shown me how a single, dedicated person, through incredible hard work, can distill experience, emotion, and the representation of human character into a tiny production, one that can shake the soul and heart. They’ve shown me how a little bundle of pages can permanently influence a person’s mind, even years after the author has returned to the dirt. Each time I read one of the classics, I feel a tiny gear shift in my brain. I can sense a restructuring of my consciousness, a new appreciation for our temporary existence.
That Twain quote scribbled on the wall sparked a quest for learning, enjoying, and appreciating the craft of literature. And although that wall of Classics seems insurmountable and ever-growing, the excitement that there is always another book, always another author, always another place in my heart for a seismic soul reaction, fills me with a bit more purpose in this thing called Life.
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Brett Randell is a singer/songwriter, writer, and traveler from New York, then Austin, and now Denver. He recently released his third CD “Rise” and is currently working on a novel and collection of short stories. You can hear his music here.