We have always seen the reading of books — fiction and non-fiction — as a spiritual activity that fires the imagination, stirs our soul, and opens our hearts and minds to the great mysteries of life. We like to have imaginary conversations with the author. We usually put check marks by the passages which impress or challenge us. A book with many checks marks is one we have taken to heart. We are especially appreciative of novels that give us the courage to face the truth about ourselves, including the darkness within us. After we have finished a book, we like to let it simmer in our consciousness for a few days.
Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University and the author of many books. His lectures on world literature are produced in DVD and CD format by The Teaching Company. Weinstein states that we read literature "in order to live more, to live differently, to have a precious vicarious experience that is available in no other way." He describes great fiction as a blood transfusion that can bring us new life and a personal transformation.
Weinstein has focused this pensive and expansive survey of notable works of fiction around the process of growing up, which includes innocence, the lessons of experience, falling in love, children and the nightmare of history, the wild child, and growing all the way up. Some of the novels covered include Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, William Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury, Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. It is clear reading these philosophical commentaries that Weinstein truly believes that "Art makes life visible." He gets high marks from us as we tallied up the large number of check marks in the margins of the book.
Given our interest in the last stage of life, we were thankful for the illuminations provided by the author on growing old in William Shakespeare's King Lear, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. Some of the themes covered here are fathers undone, exiting the stage, the old in love, the final harvest, and love's legacy. Of these diverse works, Weinstein writes:
"The story of aging is a coat of many colors. It can be comic or tragic, it can betoken recognition or ignominy, it can inspire or repulse, it can be fueled by adaptation or revolt, it can be riddled with both somatic and mental infirmity or it can conjure up a final grandeur, it can depict love's triumph or failure, it can gesture toward wisdom or catastrophe. But no matter what its coloration may be, it is always about power: holding on to it, ceding it, refiguring it."
We have let Morning, Noon, and Night: Finding the Meaning off Life's Stages Through Books by Arnold Weinstein simmer and our conclusion is that it clicks as a special blend of literary criticism and philosophical insight into growing up and growing old.