Reflections on Paradise Lost…or, How I’ll be a Better Reader in 365 days; part 1

I love to read. In that vein, I grabbed up “book smart: Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days” (sic) by Jane Mallison. I do not actually believe that I will magically become a “literary genius” (whatever that may be) within a year, but I thought it would be fun to read through this book, using it as my own special book-club-for-one. If I learn more nifty stuff along the way, so much the better. At any rate, the author will at least point me in the direction of some fun literature–and she provides mini-essays about the works as well, helping my retention of the facts of each book I read.

For this month, I am reading Paradise Lost by John Milton. No, I have no idea how I managed to overlook this book for so long. “Book smart” themes each month of the year toward a type of book. This month, the theme is crime and punishment. (I will read that book next, I promise.) “Wait!” you say? “There is not much about crime and punishment in Paradise Lost.” Oh, but there is. As Paradise Lost is Milton’s epic spin on the story (myth, theology, what-have-you) of “original sin”, it is also Milton’s rumination on the very concepts of crime and punishment. What is evil? What is good? Is desiring knowledge at great cost wrong? I found it hard to start reading this epic, but so far, it has been worth the effort of running down footnotes and thinking up thoughts. Milton focuses not on absolutes of good or evil but on the varying shades of grey that permeate human (and angelic and demonic) actions.

The author, Jane Mallison, recommends that first-time readers of Paradise Lost read approximately one-third of the epic poem: Books One and Two, then Books Nine and Ten, and finally, the last five lines of Book 12 (the final book), so as not to feel completely overwhelmed. Brilliant tactic–Paradise tells an outstanding story, dense with myth, pain, religious study (theology and theosophy). It raises questions about the meanings of good and evil, loss and hope. And it does so via 11,570 lines of blank verse (plus prose-form Arguments, relating background info and setting up the scenes). The waters here are deep, so it is likely best that I use an inner tube the first time through.

[More on Books One and Two, and Nine and Ten plus the last five lines of Book Twelve to follow.]

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