If you’ve checked the news recently…maybe you wish you hadn’t. These are anxiety-provoking times, overwhelming and draining times; times that make it seem four horsemen may just be galloping ever closer on the not-so-distant horizon.
Since I learned how to read, books have been where I’ve turned for consolation, hope, and a clarifying dose of perspective.
Lately, my solace seems to come from classic literature. Classics remind me how resilient humans are, how much beauty exists in the world. They remind me of the cyclical nature of human history. They illuminate all that humans have survived—insane rulers, endless wars of all kinds, devastating plagues, more devastating plagues…yet another devastating plague.
We have survived it before, and we can survive it all over again.
- The Iliad by Homer
That this poem, set in the 10th year of the Trojan War, has survived thousands of years provides hope in itself. Gruesome battle scenes play counterpoint to moments of grace, as when a Greek and a Trojan honor their past friendship by refusing to strike each other down. Woven throughout the poem are timeless snapshots familiar in any time and place – the pleasure of a cozy sleep, a satisfying meal, children at play.
- Antigone by Sophocles
In Sophocles’ tragedy, conflicting duties between Antigone and Creon lead to, well, tragedy. As the play progresses, our loyalty shifts according to who is telling the story and how. By the end, we understand that the deepest impediment to reaching consensus isn’t Antigone and Creon’s incompatible loyalties but their pride and refusal to engage with each other.
- Plutarch’s Lives by Plurtarch
Plutarch’s collection of biographies of famed Greeks and Romans is quite the tome. But the biographies don’t demand to be read cover to cover. Readers can dip into them as they might a recipe book, in this case, a recipe for recognizing that our little planet has survived millennia of turbulence. As a starting point, I recommend Spartan Lycurgus and Athenian Solon.
The poem begins with a young Beowulf presenting himself to Danish king Hrothgar. A monster called Grendel threatens to destroy Hrothgar’s kingdom, and Beowulf offers to fight the beast. He wins, but his labors are far from over. Until our time has passed away, the poem seems to suggest, the next beast forever lies in wait.
- The Decameron by Boccaccio
This collection of tales dates to the mid-14th century and features a frame narrative readers won’t envy: A group of men and women fleeing the Black Death who hole up together in Florence. They wile away the hours swapping stories that run the gamut, from bawdy to funny to moral.
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Like Boccaccio, Chaucer wraps a frame narrative around a collection of stories that fall along a broad continuum. Here, it’s pilgrims headed to Canterbury and Thomas Beckett’s shrine. The pilgrims represent a range of classes and occupations, which creates moments of tension as well as connection.
- Macbeth by William Shakespeare
After Macbeth hears a prophecy that, he believes, predicts he’ll become King of Scotland, he hastens to bring that prophecy to fruition: With his wife’s encouragement, he kills the King of Scotland. His act of murder leads to a downward spiral of paranoia and violence until he meets the same end. Apparently, there is nothing terribly new about power-obsessed madness…
- Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
When we need help reconciling ourselves with humanity’s imperfection, with all that is unknowable, Shelley’s novels makes excellent company. Budding scientist Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with solving the riddle of human existence. The thrill of success lasts approximately 4.7 seconds before things go horribly wrong, and then go worse from there.
- A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
Uttley’s moving story reminds us that even when we cannot change outcomes, there is power in witnessing. Young Penelope travels from the 1930s back to the late 16th century, where she becomes embroiled in a plot to save Mary, Queen of Scots. The plot, however, is doomed to fail, and Penelope is powerless to change it. All she can do is listen and provide comfort.
- Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost
When all else fails, I find comfort reading Frost’s gentle poem. It captures a simple but painful truth culled from his observations of the physical world: Nature is cyclical. The moment of perfect beauty inevitably dies away. And that is precisely what enables it to be reborn.