Reading Paradise Lost

This time of year, in what is usually a sweltering summer in Washington, D.C., I sometimes think the greatest invention of them all – even greater than ice cream or swimming pools – is air conditioning. I have heard counter voices. For instance, air conditioning changed Washington from a “sleepy Southern town,” where everyone, including – praise God! – congressmen, fled the heat and humidity, and work came to a halt, into a town where work never ceases. Still, little things like not feeling like you’re suffocating when you try to sleep at night convinced me long ago that, in Olympic parlance, air conditioning wins the gold medal.

But lately I am revising that opinion. For me, there’s a new contender for the gold. As I age, I often think I’m too tired after work for the intellectual effort that “great books” merit. (I have found I’m wrong; these books are usually quite entertaining, and were almost always written with the twin goals of entertaining, while enlightening, the reader.) Yet I once found myself with a strong desire that I felt I could never satisfy, i.e., to read for the first time, or for the first since high school, some of the great texts of the West – the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, the Canterbury Tales, the Cloud of Unknowing, the Screwtape Letters, the Imitation of Christ, and many more. And then I came upon audio-books, and all these and more were accessible to me.

This came as a welcome revelation and gift. To “read” these books while driving in the car, a time that is otherwise “wasted” (or so we type-A folks believe), is immensely satisfying. In fact, the worse the rush hour traffic, the better. With a little practice in truly listening, these texts open their riches to you. The readers of the texts are always practiced and deft. Sometimes they are famous actors, but usually they are persons whose names are unfamiliar. But what a pleasure it is to listen to them bring out the beauties and hidden meanings of a book.

On a recent trip to North Carolina, I started “reading” John Milton’s masterpiece, Paradise Lost. What grandeur! Ah, but I hear you say, “grandeur” is boring. It towers above us, but being so high, it is out of reach, dead, like a statue. I have, in fact, been told by students that they were bored by Paradise Lost.

Perhaps they should listen to it instead. The powerful images it brings so readily to mind – such as the gates of Hell, guarded by the hideous figure of Lust and her son, Death, or of Satan flying through space on his way to Earth like a great shark swimming through the sea – are nothing less than cinematic.

The book opens with the defeated forces of Satan – great angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim – sprawled across a watery but not insubstantial void. They have stormed the gates of Heaven, and have been thrown from its parapets. But instead of beginning amidst that great and loud struggle, the book begins quietly, in the stillness after the battle, amidst smoke and ruin. In those quiet moments, the defeated come slowly to their senses, they begin to sense their loss, and their lamentation begins. But, then, the great Devil rises to his feet …to summon his forces and to plot his revenge. “Better to rule in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

Can’t you just see this? Don’t the images rise, unbidden, to the mind? Imagine it shown on the big screen of one of the great old movie theaters. At our fine Uptown Theater in Washington, Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Lawrence of Arabia all premiered. Only such a grand screen could do justice to the spectacle related in Paradise Lost. In fact, Paradise Lost, through the power of its images, the greatness of its themes, and the fascinating character of its great villain, cries out for cinematic treatment. Yet, you don’t have to wait for Hollywood – you can see it all in your mind.

If my words don’t conjure it up for you, try Milton’s instead. You don’t have to rely on finding the time and energy and resolve dutifully to read a “forbidding” text. No; listen to it instead. Hear the words ring, hear the clang of battle, the cries of the vanquished. Enter, almost as a participant, a grand saga that lifts you out of the humdrum, the daily.

Do yourself a favor before this summer comes to an end. If you don’t want to try Paradise Lost, then try the Aeneid. If not that, then how about the Iliad, or the Divine Comedy? Great intellectual and spiritual stimulation and wonderful adventures await you. It’s not too late for those of us who have graduated from high school into the work-a-day world. Try one of these great books on tape.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.