Reality Check

“Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species.” ~ Carl Sagan

In a recent workshop, we were discussing the dangers of ignorance and unchallenged preferences. The conversation made its way into reflections on the need for reality checks* of all kinds. This, mainly as a way to avoid shrinking into rigid unawareness, which in turn causes habits of inward-spiraling thought, emotion and behavior that are often themselves the very causes of deep obstacles and suffering (our own, as well as causing them for those around us). One form of reality check is knowledge of wide-ranging human experience and thought beyond the circles we frequent. And we can access some of that through serious reading.

Now, it’s somewhat of a paradox that unawareness often has at its foundation a kind of knowledgeable intent; that is, in many cases, we seek out or perceive only that which supports and validates our existing prejudices. Or, as Paul Simon wrote, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” So, admittedly, reading in and of itself guarantees little if the reader is not genuinely intending to learn. In my experience, well-read intellectuals struggle with small-mindedness (and small-heartedness) as much as anyone else.

The underlying idea is to travel to new places. But to travel in ways that are revelatory. Reading a significant book should be an endeavor (“Earnest, prolonged, and industrious effort”), not just entertainment, distraction or looking for ways to get what one wants. At least this is true in cases in which the writer has been recognized as being worthy of one’s full, empathetic attention — to perceive the world, and even the process of expression, through their eyes. Such an earnest endeavor may require moving through passages or an entire book that intentionally or unintentionally demands more focus, patience and open-minded curiosity than one would prefer. I think that sets us up for, and makes us worthy of, mind-altering experiences such as astonishment, profound insight and a clearer sense of our place in the world. Studies have shown that reading the classics, for example, leads to better social perception, emotional intelligence and deeper understanding of human psychology; they also strengthen our personal ethics and sense of possibilities in life.

With all this in mind, and in celebration of the winter solstice and holidays (a good time to read), here’s a list of “greatest books.” It’s been assembled from over 100 all-time best book lists voted by international authors and literary experts:

The Greatest Books of All Time

It’s a little imbalanced, in my opinion, leaning toward Western (mostly male and white) authors and relatively modern fiction, so perhaps to be adjusted with this list that emphasizes more eclectic theology, philosophy and poetry:

The 50 Most Influential Books in Human History

It would take a while to make one’s way through these lists, even just the first thirty. Perhaps a good way to start is to choose one or two that immediately appeal, and then move toward more challenging works. I hope these are worthwhile additions to the pursuit of betterment through expansive awareness, besides helping to make for a wiser and more interesting person to be around.

*Reality Check: an occasion on which one is reminded of the state of things in the real world.
– Oxford English Dictionary

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