Did you know there are other ways of experiencing a book other than just reading it? It’s true! Books may help us travel to other places in our minds and imagine what those experiences would be like, but there are physical experiences we can have to help us connect more deeply with the books we’re reading and the characters we love. While, my focus here is on classic literature, partially because it has so many different options and ways to connect to the physical world, I would challenge you to use these techniques in whatever is you are reading.
Before we go on, I would like to disclaim that none of the links below are in any way sponsored by the companies or organizations to which they link. I am placing the resources available at your feet. Follow at your own peril. That being said, these are reputable companies and organizations and I hope you will support their mission even if just by word of mouth. Shakespeare’s Globe especially has been hard-hit by the pandemic and they would be more than happy for your support. I have not been compensated by any of them for recommending them–they are are resources I myself have used or experiences I have had in the past and hope to again in the future.
Now, on with the helpful info!
One way of experiencing what you are reading is to travel widely. For classic literature, this is an education in and of itself because so many classical works are embedded in other artistic mediums and in specific places and historical periods. Take, for instance, one of the most beautiful cities in the world: Florence. Now, it is possible to read The Divine Comedy of Dante Aleghiri without going to Florence, BUT having been to Florence myself, I can truthfully say the experience enhances the reading greatly. Florence is an education not only in Renaissance art, but in Medieval and Renaissance cityscapes.
When I went, it was in winter—something I highly recommend especially if you are from a normally hot clime and have been to one of the more modernized ancient cities such as London. The reason is that you get the full effect of just how much the city’s overall structure influenced life in the 1200’s. London, for those who don’t know, burned almost to the ground in the 1660’s and then was bombed fairly robustly during WWII. As such, very little of the medieval city remains.
Florence, however, still retains much of its medieval character. Streets are still paved in stone and buildings tower over and block out much of the sunlight. In summer, this can be beneficial since there’s bountiful shade, but in winter it means that the temperature on the streets is absolutely frigid. I caught cold in Florence just from walking the city—I was well protected in layers of wool, but I still caught cold—something which is horrendously difficult for me to do in the first place. Coincidentally, Dante himself became severely ill at one point because he lingers out of doors for too long in the winter. I had a much deeper appreciation for that fact after having experienced it myself!
The cold of the Florentine streets also made me appreciate small details in Dante’s own work. Little wonder Dante’s lowest levels of Hell aren’t hot but freezing cold. Little wonder too that the plague known as the Black Death swept across Europe with such deadly force. How could it not?
For the Dante enthusiast, or if you just want a different kind of tour, there are plaques all over the city with excepts from The Divine Comedy. The books are available at the The English Bookstore and other tourist spots in the city and allow you to really get a feel for Dante’s city and age.
Art is probably one of the easiest ways to experience what you are reading primarily because it’s easily and readily accessible these days. Whether you are going to the Uffizi in Florence, the Tate in London, the Guggenheim in New York, or the Vatican, art has a way of brining the words on the page to life. Of course, if you aren’t able to go to any of those places, Google will bring up a picture of pretty much any work you want.
While the image I chose was for a scene from the Vatican called The School of Athens by Raphael, the two painting I’m going to reference are by one of the Pre-Raphaelites. The first I have included a link to the Tate London so you can see what it looks like and browse the rest of their very excellent and extensive collection. If, however, you were reading Renaissance literature, this painting holds immense value for you because it depicts one of the prevailing thought patterns of the time. Can you guess why? If not, I’ll leave that to you to discover.
My own favorite artist is John Williams Waterhouse primarily because he painted scenes not only from Shakespeare but Tennyson. On of my most enduring favorite paintings is one he did of the Lady of Shalott. The colors are rich reds and browns with the lady herself in pure white. It captures the colors of Tennyson’s poem very well where he describes fields full of sheaves of barley and rye—an autumnal scene if ever there was one.
Another one of my favorites is from The Tempest—and depicts Miranda on the shore watching a ship getting tossed in the storm her father created. The blues and greys of the sea and waves are echoed in her blue kirtle and windswept hair. It has a surprising calming effect—despite the fact the ship is undoubtedly breaking apart which, considering the nature of the play itself is all in keeping with Prospero’s ultimate influence over the events and how he coordinates everything to it’s outcome.
Art also comes into play in other ways–animation for instance is moving art. Comic books and graphic novels combine literary tropes with artwork. Even the complicated world of content creation, blogging, and Instagram involve art in some way, shape or form. Video games too have an artistic element to them which gives each story in each game a certain look and feel. So, if in the book you are reading, there is art mentioned or involved, challenge yourself to go experience it. Is there a family portrait gallery? Pull up pictures of the portrait gallery in the Uffizi (an education in itself) or pictures from the National Portrait Gallery in London. Think about what those would have meant in the day and age in which that book was written. Think about what the modern equivalent would be.
Now, this one can be a little more difficult to get into, depending on your tastes. Most of the classics are echoed in classical music—particularly opera which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but which I recommend you attempt trying nonetheless.
Take, for instance, Eugene Onegin—an excellent opera and the titular role for only the most accomplished of baritones. If you can find a recording of it with the late, great Dmitri Hvrostovsky, I highly recommend you do so eftsoons (get what I did there?).
Eugene Onegin the opera is based upon Eugene Onegin the novel—one of the foundational works of Russian Literature no less. Alexander Pushkin is to Russian Literature very nearly what Shakespeare is to English Literature—essential reading and foundational to everything which comes afterwards.
The novel itself is an interesting read because it’s a novel in verse—not a true prose novel. This makes it ideal for the operatic form, of course, and a very interesting deviation from your usual novel. Moreover, it is one of the first works in Russian Literature which copies Western forms and some scholars even consider Pushkin the precursor to the more well-known Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
If opera isn’t your thing, I completely understand. But don’t dismiss it until you’ve really tried it. Marquee TV allows you to stream performances from all the great opera houses in the world and I highly recommend you give it a go and find an opera you really enjoy—and there are some really enjoyable ones out there.
Other ways of adding music in to your reading is by looking at contemporaries of the novel in question and listening to music from that period. If, for instance, your passion, like mine, is Shakespeare, then you can do no better than to listen to Thomas Tallis or to some of the Italian madrigals which were popular in the day.
Sometimes, you will find, such as in Sir Walter Scott, the literary work inspired the music. If you read his poem The Lady of the Lake, there is an Ave Maria which one of the character’s sings. As it happens, it’s the Ave Maria which Franz Schubert used to write his famous music which we all know today.
Fans of Edgar Allen Poe have a veritable bevy of options at their hands–everything from progressive rock such The Allan Parsons Project to heavy mental such as Nightwish’s Poet and the Pendulum or Iron Maiden’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. From opera to heavy metal, classic literature has left its mark on more than just the pages of a book.
This is, perhaps, one of my absolute favorite ways of experiencing what I’m reading. Whether it’s Lacryma Christi wine while I’m reading The Count of Monte Cristo (which we’ll be exploring in February), a tea party like Alice in Wonderland, or a little pie and ale with seed cake like The Hobbit, food gives you a unique insight into a character’s struggles, likes, dislikes, and even their personality. Why? Food is a very visceral experience because unlike travel, art, or music, it is the most essential to survival out of anything on this list. There’s little that can compare with savoring a good wine along with your character or eating their favorite foods while you are reading. It is, indeed, one of my favorite pastimes of all.
We always read how trying new foods can expose you to new cultures—if you don’t believe me, then just take a look at how many people visit Epcot every year. Better yet, if you are in the States, try visiting Epcot one time if you haven’t already and trying a little something from every nation. I’ve done so myself and have ended up trying entirely new areas of cooking I never would have dreams of before. So, take a chance and try it for yourself.
Have a cup of tea like Jane Austen. This, by the way, means having little sugar since only the extremely wealthy could afford it and even then, many wouldn’t have it at the table because it relied heavily on slave labor. Or, try mead if you’re reading Beowulf. Vodka for Pushkin (or, as it turns out The Witcher series) and wine for Dante. Find recipes for what you’re reading and try them.
There are entire cookbooks for some series—Harry Potter being one of the m most prevalent. But any historical cookbook will do you too. Just look at the time period and then find foods to match from that country in that time period. I can almost guarantee you will open your eyes to new vistas and new ways of understanding what you are reading and experiencing which you haven’t considered beforehand.
Other times, you may come across a receipt you think would fit in. That is the case with the mushroom receipt I tried this past weekend. It’s from Mary Berry’s Absolute Favorites and it’s simply mushrooms in a creamy sauce topped with bacon and put onto fried bread. It sounded so much like something a hobbit might like, I knew I had to try it while I planned out the other things I would make for Hobbit Day.
Now, this ties in somewhat to music, but it’s especially relevant today because of the prevalence of the movie industry and here’s where things can get REALLY interesting. Movies, especially from the first half of the 20th century were almost always based on the classics. From Pride and Prejudice to Shakespeare, to Disney’s early movies, much was based on classic literature.
There are other ways of performance too, however, which are worthy of your consideration. Ballet, for instance, is largely based upon folklore and fairy tales. The Sleeping Beauty is the one I generally recommend everyone see at least once because the ballet ties in with the Walt Disney movie almost perfectly, from the music (which Disney kept for the movie) to the colors of the birds. Now, the movie is slightly different from the original fairy tale, but disregarding that, it’s a perfect example of just how you can connect story to music to performance. Ballet, film, and folklore all integrate well with one another.
Performance is also a key component if you have trouble understand some writing. Take, for instance, Shakespeare, the perpetual object of fear of nearly everyone in school. Now, if you aren’t literary the plays can be a chore to read—especially if, as is most common in high school, they don’t pick the right plays for you to read. The language is Early Modern English which, while eminently descriptive, is so far removed from our language today, it can be difficult to make heads or tails of what is actually going on. What’s the solution? No, it is NOT to go read “No Fear Shakespeare.” Among other things, their “interpretation” is lacking.
No, we are in the 21st century and as such we have resources which weren’t available even as little as ten years ago. Now, if you don’t have a theater near you, like the Greeks and Romans or even the Elizabethan did, no problem. Read on!
When Shakespeare’s Globe re-opened in the late 90’s/early 00’s it was something which everyone had to travel all the way to London to see. It’s just like the original Globe theater only with more sanitary conditions, but the artwork, architecture, and the layout remain very similar, if not exact to what Shakespeare himself would have had to work with. When I went in 2013, you still could only buy DVD’s or go in person. Today, that has changed.
If you go to the website, you can stream past performances online. During the lockdowns in 2020, they would stream past performances for free on their YouTube channel too. If you’ve never seen Shakespeare performed at the Globe, then you are MISSING OUT! Seriously, it’s one of the best experiences you will ever have in life because Shakespeare comes alive when performed on stage—especially with as much talent as the Globe has to choose from. I have their player downloaded from the App Store on all my devices and there’s always a play downloaded and at the ready for me to enjoy. And enjoyment is pretty much a guarantee, in my not-so-humble opinion.
One of my favorites is Twelfth Night from 2012 where they performed the play in original practice—the women’s parts are played by men. Watching a man play a woman playing a man is quite a feat. Not to mention the sound a man playing a woman playing a man makes when he tries to scream like a girl. I dare you NOT to laugh at that one. Moreover, the cast is about as diverse as you can get. Shakespeare himself has always lent himself to diversity, and the Globe does an excellent job of showcasing that fact while remaining true to the material. Too often, I think, the lack of diversity in casting and in time, place, and circumstance turns people off to these performances and it’s a pity because the content itself
So, when you are embarking on your reading journey, look for alternate ways of getting into what you are reading using your other senses. Travel, Music, Art, Food, and Performance all have their place and there are other ways too. Computer games based upon books have become popular in recent years—and in some cases have been turned into movies and TV shows. There’s an veritable rabbit warren of possibilities these days and it would be a pity to not explore and see what those possibilities have to offer.
So, if you are stuck, or you are getting bored, then find something in the book you are reading which you can experience in real life. It will broaden your mind, open your eyes, and help you to continue to make connections between written word and human experience.
Wednesday, I’ll be posting pictures of my attempts at recreating some of Bilbo Baggins’ favorites from The Hobbit—with my own twist, of course so, if you are stumped for ideas, then please come back and see what I’ve, literally, cooked up.