I have always loved reading, and feel that I generally do a good job in selecting books that will interest and stimulate me. But every once in a while a book comes along that I feel truly speaks to me, piercing straight through to the core of my being.
I found one such book completely by chance. I was meeting a friend in an unfamiliar part of Melbourne, Australia, and had some time to kill. I stumbled across a used bookstore with a discount table planted out front.
Used book stores are my Kryptonite. I revel in going through those musty stacks of paper, looking for that wonderful diamond in the rough at a ridiculously low price. There’s something so much more pleasurable about discovering a book this way, rather than just ordering it off Amazon. I’ve noticed a similar effect with songs. Any song you wish to hear is at your fingertips with services like iTunes, yet there is something so much more pleasurable in catching a favorite song on the radio after sitting through 10 crap ones.
I stopped to browse the discount table, which contained dozens of books that, with just cause, were drastically marked down. Then suddenly I noticed a book by Johann von Goethe called The Sorrows of Young Werther. It stood out as the only book on the table by a well known, highly respected author.
I’d heard of Goethe, of course. I knew he was a literary giant, and that there was at least one important literary prize named after him. But I hadn’t had any real plans to seek out his works. I had plenty of other things to read, and while trusting that he was great, didn’t feel a burning desire to see what he was all about. I purchased the book and took it down to a cafe by the beach to begin reading.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is the story of a young artist named Werther, and is told mostly in first person through a series of short letters. The bulk of the novella concerns Werther’s intense, unrequited love for the beautiful Lotte, who unfortunately for Werther is engaged (and later married) to another man.
I used to be militantly against writing in my books, preferring to keep the pages spotlessly clean. However, I became a convert when I realized that there were certain quotes or passages from the books I was reading that I really wanted to remember, and did not want to spend hours re-reading chapters hunting for those parts.
With Sorrows, I was underlining like a madman. I was completely floored by Goethe’s descriptions. So many of Werther’s thoughts and insights closely paralleled similar thoughts that I’ve had, and truths that I’ve come to believe.
On the ills of the world:
“I discovered again that misunderstandings and inertia cause perhaps more to go wrong in this world than slyness and evil intent. In any case, the latter are rarer.”
“This strengthened my decision to stick to nature in the future, for only nature is infinitely rich and capable of developing a great artist.”
“…I have given a great deal of thought to man’s desire for expansion and his urge to explore and roam the face of the earth, and then again, I think about his inner impetus to surrender willingly to the restrictions imposed by life and to travel in the rut of routine living, never giving a thought to what goes on to right or left.”
“William, what is life worth without love? A magic lantern without light. All you have to do is put in the light, and it produces the loveliest colored pictures on a white wall.”
“Since we mortals happen to be so constituted that we compare everything with ourselves and ourselves with everything around us, our happiness and our misery have to lie in the things with which we compare ourselves. Nothing is therefore more dangerous than solitude. Our imagination, forced by its very nature to unfold, nourished by the fantastic visions of poetry, gives shape to a whole order of creatures of which we are the lowliest, and everything around us seems to be more glorious, everyone else more perfect. And all this happens quite naturally. We feel so often that there is a great deal lacking in us and that our neighbor possesses just what we lack and, for good measure, we proceed to read into him our finer attributes, adding a bit of idealistic comfort to boot, and with that have rounded out a perfectly happy, fortunate man who is actually a figment of our imagination. If, on the other hand, we can make up our minds to go about our daily tasks, in spite of our meanderings and procrastination, we have gone farther than quite a few others have gone with their sails unfurled and steering gear functioning.”
“Of what use is it to me that I can now recite with every schoolboy that the earth is round? A human being needs only a small plot of ground on which to be happy and even less to lie beneath.”
Absolutely brilliant. Reading Goethe, I was continually reminded of, and astounded by, the eternal truth that humans are far more similar through the ages than we might believe today. There’s a tendency to think our problems of today, our challenges, joys, and sorrows, are all unique and unparalleled. Yet humans from ancient Sumeria onwards have all felt and written about the same thoughts and feelings. Here is this German guy, writing 250 years ago in Europe, and he is describing situations I could clearly recognize from my own life.
Might Goethe also have realized this eternal truth? He sure did:
“Consider all other men fortunate, I tell myself; no one has ever suffered like you. Then I read a poet of ancient times, and it is as though I were looking deep into my own heart.”
I take my hat off to you, sir.