I've said it before and I'll say it again: the single most enjoyable way to improve your writing is to read good books. Take a moment waiting for the bus one day and think, "What's a classic that I know by name but have never read—The Odyssey? Oedipus Rex? Tom Jones? Dombey and Son? An American Tragedy?" If one strikes your fancy, get it, open it to page one, and start reading:
At a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived a little while ago one of those gentlemen who are wont to keep a lance in the rack, an old buckler, a lean hose, and a swift greyhound. —Don Quixote
That method has unearthed treasures that have immeasurably enriched my reading, my writing, and my life. Most recently: a battered copy of The Early History of Rome by Titus Livius, found in a college classroom deserted for the summer. Aha, I thought, I've read Herodotus and Thucydides; now I'll read their Roman colleague. I opened it up to page one of Book One: Rome under the Kings:
The task of writing a history of our nation from Rome's earliest days fills me, I confess, with some misgiving, and even if I were confident in the value of my work, I should hesitate to say so.
Why did Livy write despite his doubts? Because, he writes on page two:
The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience...and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, and base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.
Livy begins with the familiar tale of Romulus and Remus, the city's founding twins, being been suckled by a she-wolf, noting, however, that this tale may be legend, but insisting on the truth of a lesser-known bit of Roman history: the twins became bitter enemies, their rivalry ending with Romulus murdering his brother.
Through the passing pages Livy paints the steady growth of Rome as it battled, defeated, and absorbed its neighbors on the hills above the Tiber. On page 72 he begins the story of a man named Lucumo who wanted to leave his hometown, Tarquinii, and settle in Rome:
[Lucumo] was ambitious and wealthy and hoped to rise to a position of eminence there, such as his native town was never likely to afford him.
Lucumo did not hope alone:
[He married] Tannaquil, an aristocratic young woman who was not of a sort to put up with humbler circumstances in her married life than those she had previously been accustomed to...So they packed their belongings and left for Rome.
Lucumo, known in Rome as Tarquin, entertained lavishly, rose in power, and at the death of the previous king got himself elected to the throne (Rome had no hereditary kingship in 500 BC). Livy's judgment of the parvenu: "a man of outstanding character and ability, nevertheless always something of a schemer."
Reading this I stopped and looked up amazed. Wait a sec, I've read this story before: the small town big shot who moves to the capitol that he comes to dominate. Tarquin—couldn't he be Frank Cowperwood of Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire, who made a fortune in Chicago then built himself a mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue? Or the millionaire Augustus Melmotte of Trollope's The Way We Live Now who had dukes eating out of his hand in London? Or any one of the dozens of unscrupulous bankers and businessmen who populate Balzac's novels and today's daily news?
Ten pages later Livy tells the tales of Tarquin's two sons, one ambitious, one not, who married two sisters, one ambitious, one not, in perfect crisscross symmetry: Tullia, the younger sister, despises her weak husband and longs to marry the older brother. "You and I," she whispers into the elder's ear:
...would have been better single than bound in marriages...where each of us is forced by a cowardly partner to fritter our lives away in hopeless inactivity. Ah, if God had given me the husband I deserve!
Again I stopped reading. Tullia's malicious nagging sounded so much like Lady Macbeth! that I felt tempted to lay out Livy's prose in quasi-blank verse as if it came from a lost Shakespearean masterpiece, Tarquin and Tullia:
Did I want a man just that I might call him husband,
Simply to ensure slavery with him in silence?
No! I wanted a man who knew he deserved a crown,
Who remembered that his father was a king,
Who would sooner reign now than languish in hope.
Why do these characters drawn from life two millennia ago resemble so closely characters in books written in the intervening centuries and real people in today's headlines? Because they are among what Livy called "the infinite variety of human experience," or as Thucydides put it in his masterpiece, The History of the Peloponnesian War:
Events which happened in the past will, human nature being what it is, at some time and in much the same way, happen again in the future.
"Human nature being what it is"—in a word, we humans do not change. Many aspects of our lives change, but year in and year out we can count on the fact that our core content, the seething blend of contradictory forces that makes us human, remains constant.
Let's say, for instance, that in a Jane Austen novel a character's wife falls ill in London, and she wants to send word to her husband in Plymouth that he must come to her at once. So she dispatches a servant to take that message to Plymouth on a stagecoach, and when the husband gets the message, he jumps into a return coach that carries him to his wife's bedside. If the same situation occurred in an Anthony Trollope novel written fifty-years later, the wife would send a telegram to Plymouth, and the husband would take a train to London. In a Somerset Maugham novel, the wife would phone her husband and he'd drive to see her. Today the wife would email her news, and before the husband boarded a high-speed train or short-hop plane, the couple might skype each other. Yet in all cases, the emotional essentials are identical: a sick wife, an absent husband, and a shared desire to be together as quickly as possible.
Likewise, Romulus and Remus, Tarquin and Tullia, and all of Livy's toga-ed Romans, including Livy himself, who knew nothing of electricity or gunpowder or antibiotics or North America, lived in their heart of hearts as humans like you and me. Discovering such incontrovertible evidence of the constancy of human nature, a brotherhood crossing all barriers of centuries and culture—that's the greatest gift of reading classics of world literature. Yes, Sophocles and Cervantes, Defoe and Dickens, Fielding and Faulkner tell us captivating tales, but as important, they remind us on every page that they and their characters are people like us.
How can that knowledge improve our writing? By giving us the confidence to create characters with emotional lives like our own despite their living in lands and eras far removed from ours, and by renewing our dedication to telling the truth of human nature whenever we sit down to scribble at our desks. If we do write and rewrite so as to convey that truth with all the passion and precision at our command, maybe, just maybe, someone a dozen generations hence may read our writing and learn from us then what we can learn from Livy today.