The cave mouth shoots straight down into a yawning abyss. Grasping the nylon rope, a lone caver plunges through the darkness, his helmet lamp casting a ghostly glow on the ancient hues of sleeping limestone. He descends fearlessly, rappelling into the oblivion until boots at last strike the solidity of a rock-strewn floor. Farther into the gloom, a natural tunnel leads downward at a manageable angle. The air is damp, almost cold. Yet, excitement produces a nervous perspiration. At first, he is thrown off-balance in this alien world, but after a while, the spelunker becomes accustomed to the new surroundings. Another corridor veers off from this main one, and he takes it. Discovery beckons. Soon, the passage reduces dramatically in size, and progress is made only by crawling, then by lying flat and elbowing the body forward. A flush of panic almost undermines the advance, but after a few moments, nerves are regained and the spell is shaken off. This tight space finally gives onto a chamber, where dark-green cavewater, its depth unplumbable, lies placidly on either side of a narrow pathway. One misstep would be calamitous. Carefully, the adventurer moves toward an opening in the far wall. Passing through it, he is now in a much larger "room." Splashed with lamplight, it reveals a grotesquerie of impish stalagmites in frozen eruption from the floor and eerie stalactites that drip from the vaulted ceiling. Pearlescent in color and streaked with iron oxides, these calcite formations decorate the chamber in surreal fashion. Time seems to pass geologically as the caver explores ever deeper into this honeycombed system's interconnected passageways. Some rooms are separated by treacherous chasms and are reached by tightly hugging the flowstone walls. One of these great halls contains giant columns formed by eons of riverflow. Yet now, only a few silent pools of mysterious water remain. Each of these rocky grottos or immense cavities holds a bewitchment of subterranean alchemy wrought by time, water, and stone. The pleasures of exploration are so keen that our intrepid one may become hopelessly lost.
So, too, is the delving into literature.
This essay is written for those in high school and college, as well as for others, who make the following declaration: "I don't read. Don't have the time. And it's boring. I'd rather watch TV or play video games." The refrain is dishearteningly familiar.
But be forewarned! Literature has the uncanny power to transform your life; it is volatile and can be caustic burning away complacency, normality, ignorance, and even the veneer of sanity. Are you afraid? You should be. Reading can alter your consciousness, coloring it in striking new shades and shaping it into irregular contours. Not for the timid. At risk is the peace of an unperturbed, superficial mind. But it'll be worth it. Submerged in literature are riches to be unearthed, precious gems to fire the imagination and accessorize the soul. Reading opens up a labyrinth of passages into new worlds. Be prepared for wondrous, disconcerting, and even shocking images, thoughts, and feelings. Moreover, deep rivers of unsuspected spirituality pulse through many of these "reading rooms." So ... take a deep breath and then descend with me into the wonderful abyss of books.
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The first tunnel opens onto the Hall of Ancients, containing the worlds of The Iliad by Homer and The Aeneid by Virgil. Here, we are witness to grotesque battle wounds wrought by the sword and spear of Akhilleus during the siege of Troy. The shrieks of those being killed hurt our own minds, and the splattering blood is sickening. Moving ahead cautiously, we rub shoulders with inscrutable, transparent gods and goddesses urging on the struggle. The violence should be "X-rated." Reading this vivid war-slaughter might make you question a blind allegiance to authority. Whether to rescue a Helen for the cuckolded Menelaus or to further the cynical agenda of a militaryindustrial complex, it will be your life and limbs at stake. But that Authority will smile none too favorably on an independent thinker. Troy finally falls, so let us accompany a survivor Aeneas on his voyage to Africa and then to the land that would become Rome. How courageous his temporary descent into Hades, where the disembodied ones move about, dazed by the tragedy and permanence of a lusterless afterlife. Computer games couldn't possibly compare with such martial adventure and "levels" of sword and sorcery sprung on words like incantations.1 Virgil's verse is poetically sublime, but exposure to it might disturb you in a pronounced way: before you know it, you could be swept under that portentous sea of Art, which drenches time in lucent, yet perplexing moments of awe. If the ordinary is your cup of tea, perhaps you should not stimulate your spirit with such strong drink.
Here, also, can be found the strange book of Histories by Herodotus. It contains a phantasmagoria of Persian wars, pagan rituals, and beseechments of oracles, opening up the mind to a vastly wider panorama of past human culture than would occur to the unread. The world has been filled with immemorial events the acknowledgment of which should, at the very least, inject a subtle context into our present perspective, a milieu otherwise dominated by consumerism and religion. Discovering the fantastic elements of our world history can be disorienting, yet also thrilling. Do you fear or welcome the unknown?
Please stay very close to the cave wall, for beyond it is a plunge into a terrible chasm that I call the Doom of Dante. Down there, over the edge, is his own version of Hell Inferno a nightmarish torture chamber supposedly devised by an all-merciful and loving God. Think about it. And let its images drip their acid into your religious imagination. Dangerous, but voyeuristically compelling. I must here make my confession (apropos in such a Catholic context): I only made it halfway through the second book Purgatorio, never reaching the highest elevations of Paradiso. Was I stalled by Dante's obsessive orienting details or because of something more serious ... something too dangerous? To be honest, I must attribute my failure to a cowardly distaste for peering into the soul's apotheosis; my preference, instead, is for paradox and suspense, for ambiguity and procrastination. I'm not saintly enough for the leap into conviction and certainty, into the uncarnal air. The flesh is a powerful anchor, and even when it is weighed in disease or old age the spirit prefers to float in the harbor of this world. If you persevere, please let me know what things are like up there. Hmm ... if my experience with The Divine Comedy turns out to be an allegory of my own after-fate, I hope the Library of Limbo is stocked with all of my favorites!
Do you hear the voices? They murmur in quiet soliloquy or declaim in resounding agitation. Squeeze through this crevice of consciousness with me, and we'll enter the Theater of the Soul. This semicircular cavern terraces down to yon flat stone stage, whereon Shakespeare's characters are excavating new space for the ego's expression. Introspections writ large, betrayals most foul this revolution of inwardness enlarged the realms of idea and conscience.2 Just listen to the existential anguish in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. One can encounter To be or not to be a hundred times, and each reading exposes the nerves to new pleasures and pains. (Aside: If the moving image doth thy youthful eye excite, methinks the player Branagh meet in the princely plight.) Life with Shakespeare is perilous: could your mind stand the strain of such an expansion into sensibility, a swelling awareness that beclouds lighter, blither living? Even as you attend to the voices, spellbound by their passionate rhythms or delighting in the play of perfect words, you realize uncomfortably that these mirrors of the human psyche reflect an ancient aberration in the heart of Man.
Next is the Poets' Grotto, with several mesmerizing niches to explore. William Blake, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Dylan Thomas, to mention a select few, have bequeathed us their own peculiar formations. Blake's real-life visits from ghosts and visions of angels in trees imparted an enigmatic quality to his poems. They are dripping with strangeness and defy conventional gravity in their insistence on unfettered freedom. Yet freedom is something over which the law holds an inhibiting, consequential sword caution. Keats? His words may be too beautiful for you to read. Such beauty can cause a momentary paralysis, and even a permanent infection. Hadn't you better pass on Dickinson? Why in the world would you want your passion for buying things or going to action movies distracted by this lady's peculiar "conversations" with the Grim Reaper? Don't you prefer the safety of fun and daylight to such dealings with Death? I'm telling you ... this stuff can mess with your mind. Or Thomas. This Welch wordsmith conjured up roller-coaster poems that careen deliriously and precariously through the carnival of your consciousness. If action is your forte, see if you can ride one of his poems without being thrown off.
Walk softly now. We're approaching the sleep chamber of the nineteenth-century essayist Thomas De Quincey. A caveat: enter De Quincey's Den at your own risk. I remember reading Confessions of an English Opium-Eater for the first time when I was in high school. Although the book was in the school library, I had an unshakable sense that it was there by mistake. If only the librarian and principal knew! This is strong material: an opium-induced descent into dreams that beggar the imagination, that are suffused with something too spiritual for a young impressionable mind. It hit me hard and redirected the course of my life. It inflicted a permanent psychic wound. I discovered that reality is haunted with a tragic sense and a sublimity that are drowned out by the career-obsessed noise of ordinary life. I would not be college bound after such an epiphany, becoming instead, a quasi-bohemian. In short, I was shattered. Years later, I read De Quincey's Suspira de Profundis and delved even deeper into the exquisiteness of despair, falling headlong into its beautiful cascade of words like tears. Stay away from this sad dream painter if you want to be successful and wealthy ... or just plain normal.
Like De Quincey, Edgar Allan Poe can worm his way into and conquer your psyche. His macabre, gothic stories unnerve the reader, bringing the horizon of mortality into an excessively sharp relief. Between that horizon and us lies his Underlake of Ennui. The water is not fine. No lifeguard is on duty. Only the intrepid should wade into those dark depths. Yet, those waters of woe beckon to us with their seductive sirens' song. In the short story Ligeia, the narrator another opium user laments the death of his faerylike and treasurable wife Ligeia. Have ever words conjured a more evocative portrait of feminine perfection or been strung like trembling strings in glissandoed music on a profane harp? Was it he, through inconsolable loss, who called a spirit back to usurp Rowena's corpse in that nightmared chamber, or was it, rather, the indestructible human will of Ligeia who, by refusing oblivion, possessed the cooling body? Read and shudder. And as you drink in the tainted wine of the underlake, become drunk on the delicious horror of your own eventual ending.
Next on our tour is a passage through the Visceral Vault. I believe that rotten stench you smell must be a plume of nitrogen escaping from a deep fissure just hold your nose as we traipse through the difficult fog (even as we take a wincing delight at viewing what lies inside the foulness). Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is more than an old-fashioned horror story. It moves through layers of morbidity, eventually leaving the reader sickened to the very core. The usual reading that her book is a cautionary tale about the danger of playing God will not concern us here. In this putrid chamber, we confront the fact of our visceral, fleshly nature. Science may learn how to reanimate a corpse, but to corruption it must eventually, and again, return. As we thrill in witnessing the murders committed by the doctor's monster a creature that yet yearns for love and understanding we also find ourselves slipping into an unsettling paradox: although we are inextricably bound by, woven into, our mortal flesh, we, nevertheless, intuit a transcendent spark. This conundrum might, inexorably, tear the thinking reader in two. A heavy, rancid atmosphere pervades this engrossing book. And now something else is moving in the noxious mist, in dank and desperate Parisian environs. Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin harbors a disillusionment that breeds desire and leads to carnal passion; the result is her husband's cadaver on a slab. Here, indeed, is a cautionary tale. Illicit dreams lead not to idealized romance, but to the ruination of spirit. Zola was criticized for the raw, unflinching depictions in this novel. But isn't there a guilty pleasure in surveying the depravity? In Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, dissatisfaction becomes a mortal wound. The desire to realize a higher, intenser love leads, interestingly, to the depths, the dullness, of a grave.
Hear that sound? It's coming from over there. It's another wet, whale-of-a-chamber, this one containing an underground geyser. I've dubbed it Moby's Blowhole. Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick is intoxicating. Once you get used to the elevated prose, you'll almost be breathing in the salty air of a voyage into excitement and perdition. Captain Ahab's revenge-fixation on the white whale, which had taken his leg, propels not only the oceanic action; it also drives a metaphorical enormity into the reader's imagination: the insulted and the injured which is all of humanity must accept stoically or rail against with maddening resentment that phantom beast, whether natural or divine, that has compelled us from the balm of nonexistence into a peril-filled reality. This metaphor will harpoon itself into your fathoming mind. Are you strong enough to bear such a threatening wound?
And right through here watch your head is my favorite series of cave rooms. I've christened this Fyodor's Gallery. Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist who lived from 1821 to 1881, and he bequeathed to posterity a treasure trove of spiritual and psychological insight. If you follow me into his books, you're in for quite an experience. Notes from Underground (how appropriate!), Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov all of these are filled with characters, situations, and conceptions that will take up permanent residence in your soul. Finding room for them there will require the eviction of small-mindedness. Larger thoughts and feelings will be unleashed, and you will gradually find yourself becoming a different person. Your friends will wonder what has become of you, but explanations to the unread to those who haven't experienced these books will fall on deaf ears, causing you degrees of alienation. Dostoevsky an Orthodox Christian nevertheless posed questions about God's existence and beneficence, especially in The Brothers Karamazov. Even the believing reader will find Ivan's resentment and challenge in the chapters "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor" irresistible: are you courageous enough to put your faith through the furnace of doubt (or conversely, to subject your lack of faith to the transfigurative heat of suffering's flame)?
Up ahead is London Bridge. It's a natural arch spanning a loud, ravenous underground stream. Okay now ... just one foot after the other as we cross over the void of an indifferent Nature into which Jack London's heroes were thrown. Whether facing the brutal grip of winter lost in the wilderness and feeling one's blood begin to freeze or staring into the human yet chilling eyes of a South Seas cannibal, any notions of a benevolent Nature or sense that things will always work out are about to be dashed on those rocks below. Nevertheless, the entertainment is edge-of-the-seat. London also probed the evils of supposed civilization. His story Mauki pits natural man against "improved" man. The naïve Melanesian Mauki, sold into white man's slavery, has an indomitable will to be free. This will eventually collides with that of the brutal German trader Bunster on the isolated and sand-encircled Lord Howe atoll. Power carries a responsibility toward those who are under its sway. When this dictum is abandoned to avarice, arrogance, and cruelty, there will come a reckoning. To any robber barons out there: may you meet your doom in a manner less painful than flaying by the ray-skinned glove! Such stories can be hazardous to one's "civilized" climbing of the corporate ladder the only way to succeed, no matter how you euphemize the particulars, is to become a controller of others. Are you really, before the tribunal of your conscience, made of such godlike stuff? This literary bridge not only brooks a stark Nature, it also transcends the illusion of Progress.
Okay, we made it across, but things aren't going to get any easier. In here is the Red Room. "Union" is a dirty word, right? Those with inherited or hard-earned capital deserve the most rewards from production, surely? I mean, the noblest way to structure a society is to base it on greed, where the accumulation of personal wealth is potentially unlimited and, therefore, individualism must take precedence over too deep a concern for less fortunate human beings, hmm? Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle isn't for the squeamish. That's not red oxide coating these walls. Here, Jurgis and his immigrant family are swallowed up by the Chicago meat-packing machine and discover an unexpected meaning to the phrase life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Also in this room, we find John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle. The California Growers pay the impoverished and displaced field workers just as little as possible. Why should they care if these units of labor live squalidly? This is, after all, America whatever the market will bear! Besides the animal blood, this room is red with a simmering passion of revolt. Jack London makes a reappearance here with his short story The Apostate, which chronicles the abomination of child labor. And to think how many families have passed down to later generations their tainted wealth wrought from the misery of others. Hard stuff, but it's also a strange pleasure feeling the force of indignation well up in sympathy to the dispossessed ones. Well, anyway, we can rest easier in the knowledge that we've certainly moved beyond such spiritual barbarism ... haven't we? It would be incautious to discuss these dangerous writings in the workplace.
Yes. That, indeed, is silver caught in the light of your head lamp and glinting on the tunnel wall. This is Three Curses Vein, where Joseph Conrad's masterpiece Nostromo chisels through the unholy union of wealth and politics in the fictional South American province of Sulaco with its San Tomé silver mine. Corruption, Monomania, Imperialism these are the curses afflicting that depressed and rebellion-roiled land. Moving deftly between the empowered and the disenfranchised is Nostromo. Of Italian descent and a man of the people, he is a living fulcrum in an unbalanced world, respected inside the community owing to his forthrightness and ability; outside lie those others with whom he must deal, who occupy the cynical territory of politics and despoiling capitalism. The intrigue and adventure are compelling, and in the end, even Nostromo gives in to temptation. Are there any honest and honorable men left to be found anywhere? Can a society ever achieve a moral political structure? Conrad thinks not. His book is a bleak, pessimistic view of the human condition, with its characters failing to attain the meaningfulness of Fidelity. If you book passage on Nostromo's hope-leaking boat in frantic flight to the Great Isabel island, may the silvery ingots of your idealism not go under wave.
Well, we've finally reached the Sorcerer's Staircase. Up those natural steps, we'll ascend to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain; down the other side, the dark stone treads descend steeply into the pages of his Doctor Faustus. Hans Castorp just thought he would pay his tubercular cousin a visit in that mountain sanitarium. But Mann wove a spell of enchantment in that alpine air, and time stood still. How many years did pass years filled with aching romance and dizzying mental growth while Hans was bewitched by the institutional melancholy? If you choose to linger here with him, you will put yourself in peril of becoming a sophisticated thinker ... dare I say, intellectual? Oh, the horror! But there is also the pleasure of losing oneself in the eternal present and being swept along on the musical pulse of Mann's prose. Doctor Faustus is another matter entirely. It should come with a warning label. While reading it the first time hardly suspecting its chthonic intensities my mouth, throat, and esophagus broke out in painful blisters. I was in bed for a week and could eat almost nothing only sip water. Lest you think this a fluke or mere coincidence, a year later I reread this novel, and the same thing happened (though less severely). Even now, when I open my bookcase and catch sight of that book's spine, an electric flinch runs through me (of course, it's too good not to read again). Adrian Leverkuhn's intellectual penetration into the daemonic depths of art and his own musical genius unleashed the dark forces that burble down in every human soul. Try not to get scorched by Mann's Luciferian conjurations.
Leaving Leverkuhn and Old Scratch, we move into the discombobulating Alcove of the Absurd. Dreams can be confusing, even disturbing the usual images and conditions of reality become mixed up and blurred. These subterranean visions seem to follow laws of their own. Franz Kafka's novel The Castle unfolds much like a frustrating dream. The Higher Power of the province keeps the protagonist "K" in perpetual suspense as he tries to break through the implacable facelessness of its bureaucracy. The story grabs you and won't let go. Who could resist such a low-simmering nightmare? But what if God, himself, is uninterested in our case, our petition? What if reality, through and through, is composed of such dreamstuff? The fascinating characters in Gabriel García Márquez's book One Hundred Years of Solitude would experience no inconvenience with that possibility. Ghosts move through the aging Buendia manor with the blitheness of custom, while the living treat them as honored guests. If the village of Macondo and the world at large are crazy, well ... one must simply accept the inevitable. And this exquisite assent to fate unfolds in many hilarious episodes. One must, though, be on guard against this surreal book's power to undermine the solid ground of reality. The jungle heat might lull you into lethargic dreams in which the word why will never be spoken again.
Those? Just empty bottles left strewn on the cave floor. Kick them out of your way as we step down into the Winos' Cellar to visit Danny and the boys in John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat. This was another high school book, and it had been assigned reading! What in the world was my teacher thinking? Did she really expect me to imbibe this tale without succumbing to a life-long inebriation of the spirit? Well, maybe some readers can exit such books unscathed. Not so me. If you, like me, are prone to drink a book to its dregs, be aware: such a vintage can trigger toxic shock to ambition. Yes, the lassitude of the boys is addictive. Danny, Pilon, Jesus Maria, Big Joe Portagee these wise creatures of entropy "breathe" with paradox's bouquet: their wine-conniving and work-avoiding schemes would yet put to shame the most earnest and tireless efforts of the studied entrepreneur. The hermits' pathos becomes a subtle invasion of the reader's subconscious (not like when the bums crash into and out of Danny's house). This little novel's treacherous contents can cause you to veer and stumble, to become a sagging gear-tooth on the capitalist cogwheel. These sullied saints-in-training uncork their fermented mixture of naïve wisdom in funny yet tragic ways. And that naïve wisdom becomes the outcasts' ethic: life is something to be lived in the moment, with conviviality its noblest virtue. Such a literary bacchanalia can unsober one's societal programming, make one less materialistic and less injuriously indifferent to universal siblinghood.
Are you doing all right? You look a bit weary. We have been down here a long time. I think this cave system must really be endless. There are so many passageways, so many rooms we won't have time now to explore. Just ahead is the cave's exit. You can already see some natural light filtering through. Coincidentally, our way out takes us past Nietzsche's Niche. Like Plato's allegory of the cave's darkness and the radiance of knowledge he prompts us toward, Nietzsche's robust and far-ranging thought is all about exposing our benighted conceptions to the penetrating brightness of unadulterated truth. Much written philosophy dense, clumsy, solipsistic fails as literature. Friedrich Nietzsche was an exception. A proto-psychologist extraordinaire, he presented a radical way of understanding the ubiquity of religion (especially Judeo-Christianity): it boils down to the case of a powerless, subjugated peoples' hurt feelings festering into ressentiment; to a holier-than-thouness necessitating a God to cap off the grand delusion, a God who is eventually discarded given a funeral during humanity's march into maturity. Was Nietzsche full of insight or spiritually tone-deaf? You be the judge. Anyway, who doesn't enjoy a good rant, a curmudgeonly tirade against ritualistic posturings and obfuscatory evasions of life's hard truths? Thus Spoke Zarathustra is an alarming sermon on the will to power. You will not be able to read the exhortations of this prophet without being swept away on its strong rhetorical current, without being, at least temporarily, overcome by its trumpeted ideal of overcoming. And it is a giddy acquiescence this philosophical high-wire act takes you through the breathtaking vertigo of morality's suspension ... and the drunkenness of creation.
* * *
Here we are at last, back in the daylit world of normal life. I know it's a tad disorienting, getting used to the usual again. You'll probably want to shove in a video game for distraction, won't you? What's that? You say you want to go back in and this time alone? All right. I'll snap on the tether and will be right here if you panic. Over the edge you go!
1. Robert Fitzgerald's translations are recommended.
2. Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: Inventing the Human explores this theme.
Tim Buck lives in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and is a salesman for Lowe's Home Improvement Company. He is presently seeking a publisher for his first novel, Séance in B Minor, which is about classical music and the mystery of consciousness.