Sometimes when I’m reading bedtime stories to my five-year-old, I glance at her and wonder Is she following this? We recently made the jump to “chapter books,” starting with some that have illustrations on every page. She often stops me and says “Let me see.” She’ll grab the book and pull it up to her nose to study the pictures.
Pictures seem to be at the core of how we understand anything. People often say “I’m a visual learner” as if it were a matter of personal style. (Where are all the audio learners? Taste learners?) I’m no neuroscientist, but it seems to me that everyone is a visual learner.
The fact that great writing is rich in imagery is not some accidental aesthetic quirk (like the fact that pavement always appears wet in movies), but an insight into how our minds work. I first encountered this idea reading Steven Pinker, but Aristotle gave me a renewed appreciation for it.
I never stop reading a book. But I often lose momentum. The first time I failed to finish the Iliad was during a great books seminar in college. I was terrified to learn that we were expected to read the entire book in just over a week. I calculated how many pages I had to cover each day in order to keep up: 68. After a few days it became clear that momentum was not on my side. I fell behind. We moved on to Herodotus. My partially read Iliad moved to the shelf, where it would remain for twenty years.
Every era has a defining anxiety. Ours is an era of technological anxiety. We ask ourselves questions like: What are smartphones doing to us? Is social media making us miserable? We’ve been asking these kinds of questions since the industrial revolution. The early 20th-century folk song “John Henry” and contemporary movies like Ex Machina ultimately pose the same question: Will these machines be the death of us?
John Henry was a newborn baby Sittin’ down on his mama’s knee Said, “That Big Bend Tunnel on C-and-O Road It’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord It’s going be the death of me – John Henry, as sung by Leadbelly
Aeschylus, judging from The Oresteia and Prometheus Bound, lived in an era of political anxiety. The world is unstable in his tragedies. Power is in flux. Regimes come and go. The tragedies of Aeschylus are concerned with power, and particularly with the instability of power. These works ask the question: In a world without kings, where does power come from?
Maybe you knew someone like this in high school. He was the guy who organized the parties, the guy who somehow procured the beer. He was the leader. The instigator. He was the reason everyone showed up at Heather Morgan’s house to get buzzed on Milwaukee’s Best Light the Saturday her parents were out of town. But when the police showed up, he was nowhere to be found. Sure, he broke the rules, but so did everyone else at the party. The difference between him and everyone else was that this guy somehow survived.