THE BLOG
11/05/2014 10:29 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

"What Is Your Favorite Book?"

I have a love-hate relationship with the perennial question, "what is your favorite book?" On one hand, I love the question, because the answer is incredibly important to me, and I am always more than happy to stop what I'm doing and have a discussion about it. On the other hand, I hate that my truthful, honest-to-god answer can make me seem pretentious at first blush. That can happen when your favorite book is actually an epic poem written in Latin from almost 2000 years ago.

Yes, my favorite book is Vergil's Aeneid, a mythic tale of the founding of Rome that has been the bane of Latin students for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The poem details the journey of its hero, Aeneas, as he flees his ravaged homeland of Troy in search of a new place for his people, eventually finding Italy, where he founds the state that will become Rome. Many volumes could be (and have been) filled with analyses of all that the Aeneid has to tell us. The poem is a national foundation myth, a literary marvel, a political commentary, and a heroic journey all wrapped into one. It is also arguably the greatest story ever told -- with war, love, loss, man-eating snakes, self-immolating queens, and even a trip to the underworld, the tale is unmatched by even the most epic Hollywood productions (by the way, Hollywood, someone needs to get on that -- the Aeneid would make a great movie).

While I love all of this, these aren't the reasons that the Aeneid is my favorite book. The Aeneid speaks to me for the simple reason that I relate to Aeneas on a personal level, and I draw inspiration from his journey. While on his literal voyage of discovery, Aeneas undergoes a metaphorical voyage of self-discovery, without which he could never have been successful. For the first half of the epic, Aeneas wallows in uncertainty and misery, beholden to the memory of his beloved homeland and deferring to the judgment of his father. He knows that he is destined to found a great nation, but he is reluctant to do so, instead preferring to yearn for Troy. Eventually, though, Aeneas realizes that he cannot dwell in the past, becomes a leader in his own right after the death of his father, and leads his people to victory in a fierce war with the native people of Italy.

The Aeneid has endured for thousands of years, and resonated so deeply with me, because Aeneas' journey is one that is integral to the human condition. Although we may not all be destined to found a nation that will become the most powerful empire in human history, we all have our own Troy. My first Troy was the world of public middle school, to which I yearned to return after transitioning into private high school. Although I didn't know it at the time, looking back I realized that my journey to success in high school was much like Aeneas'. I spent my first year wallowing in self-pity and looking back at a past to which I could never return. It was only once I fully threw myself into high school, concentrating on the task at hand, and to the future, that I found success. To a lesser degree, the same was true of my transition from high school to college.

In an age of 140 character tweets, reading a twelve-book-long poem may not be exactly an enticing prospect. Nevertheless, the Aeneid should be required reading for the human race. Hopefully, we will not all have our hometowns burned down by Greeks. But life imposes transitions on all of us, whether it is the end of high school or college, the breakup of a relationship, or the loss of a loved one. In such times, readers of the Aeneid will realize that Virgil's prose is reaching across the millennia to teach them something, something more than how to read dactylic hexameter. Aeneas' example can help us to realize that while periods of reflection and yearning for the past are normal, and perhaps even necessary, true success in a new endeavor can only come once one commits fully to that endeavor instead of looking to the past.

The Aeneid also features my favorite quote of all time -- "The life of every man is brief and irretrievable. Yet, to lengthen fame by deeds is the task of valor." We cannot accomplish enough to "lengthen fame" if we are stuck in the past, as Aeneas once was. Instead, when struck with loss and transition, we need to learn from Aeneas' example and engage fully with each new situation. Only then can we fulfill Virgil's challenge and accomplish our own "tasks of valor."