What The Secret History by Donna Tartt Can Tell Us About Cultivating a Love for Learning

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“For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.”
The Secret History

I should have read The Secret History by Donna Tartt a long time ago. Published in 1992, there’s something timeless about The Secret History, particularly (although not exclusively) for a young adult audience. Perhaps this is to do with the novel’s central theme of friendship, but for me it’s tied up with the theme of learning, both academically and in a wider sense.

A mosaic of (possibly) Belisarius,  who
featured in Procopius’s Secret History.

A quick overview of The Secret History

As we enter the novel, Richard Papen leaves his hometown of Plano, Texas, for the romantic, isolated Hampden College in New England. Despite leaving Plano as a fairly undistinguished teenager, relying heavily on financial aid to enter the college, Richard is quickly seduced by an elite group of five worldly, self-assured Greek scholars. As Richard becomes the group’s sixth member he becomes entangled with their gruesome secrets, and we nervously await the murder that’s foreshadowed on the novel’s first page.

What The Secret History Can Teach Us About Cultivating a Love for Learning

The Lyceum at Hampden College is where the main characters’ Greek lessons take place, under the tutelage of the elusive and charismatic Julian Morrow. It’s also the central landmark for many important parts of the novel: events are triggered, friendships are created, and information is uncovered.

By reading The Secret History, here are a few lessons that can help us to cultivate our own love for learning, as well as for life itself:

1. Books form connections between people and allow for introductions

Outside the Lyceum, books help create so many social ties. It is by interrupting the group’s study session with a translation suggestion that Richard enters the group, and soon becomes accepted as one of them. Soon, surroundings like this become the norm for Richard:

“Walking into the library, I took in my breath sharply and stopped: glass fronted bookcases and Gothic panels, stretching fifteen feet to a frescoed and plaster-medallioned ceiling. In the back of the room was a marble fireplace, big as a sepulchre, and a globed gasolier–dripping with prisms and strings of crystal beading–sparkled in the dim.”

2. We should seek our own mentors for learning and life

By reading The Secret History, we can consider who our own mentors are: who do we go to when we want to build our knowledge, learn new things, or find advice or feedback? While teachers can be the best mentors, we can all find people to help us with our own life and learning.

A beautiful classic-inspired Penguin edition of The Secret History. Source.

3. Classics can still be relevant today

I love how The Secret History emphasises the relevance of the classics today. Take this wonderful quote from the novel as an example:

“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free!”

4. Knowledge and books may stick with us when friendships and circumstances do not

Even after tragedy unfolds, the value of books and education remains. When in the hospital after a deadly few weeks, Richard narrates:

“[Henry] brought me pencils and paper, for which I had little use but which I suppose he would be lost without, and a great many books, half of which were in languages I couldn’t read and the other half of which might as well have been.”

When spoken words don’t quite come naturally for Tartt’s characters, books often stand in their place (even when ill-chosen).

5. Attending university can actually include learning

Although drugs and alcohol are perhaps the sixth and seventh members of the Greek study group, as well as Richard’s ties to the wider university, the Greek scholars actually do want to learn. Many an evening is spent settling down with a book or some Greek grammar, and Henry (think of him as the Sherlock Holmes of the novel) often replaces sleep with a pile of heavy, obscure reading.

“You’re up early”, I said […] “What are you doing, Greek?”
Henry set the cup back into its saucer. “A translation of Paradise Lost.”
“Into what language?”
“Latin,” he said solemnly.

Dionysus sarcophagus, Hellenistic marble sculpture; Metropolitan Museum, New York.

As readers, we’re left to watch awkwardly from afar. We’re not meant to relate entirely to the characters – particularly when it comes to their ‘tragic flaws’ – but we can relate to their love for learning and reading. This is what made the novel such a memorable read for me.

“It is is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.”

You might also like part two of my post on The Secret History, which lists the books mentioned in the novel and what we can learn from them.

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