Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The case for reading good books

A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
--Arthur Schopenhauer

Regular encounters with great thinkers and great ideas can give us perspective. They can remind us that our personal experiences, unique though they may be in the particulars, have much in common with the experience of other human beings throughout the world and across the centuries.

By reading, we can expand our understanding and our empathy, and we can begin to see that some experiences – the joy of love and sex, the fear of death, the struggle with belief – are universal. This realization helps to alleviate our loneliness and increase our sense of empathy and solidarity with distant individuals and communities.

Reading widely can also help us to distinguish between what is trivial and what matters. For instance, the descriptions of society gossip in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the description of the glamorous parties of the aristocracy in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the descriptions of the emptiness of a wealth-obsessed life in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman all serve to educate our sense of what is important.

If you are serious about self-education, reading should become a regular, major part of your life. There are alternative ways of learning, and some would-be self-educators may find reading – especially reading difficult material – to be a frustrating experience. Others will simply prefer other methods. But America’s most highly-regarded schools, the best college-prep high schools and elite universities, usually place a premium on broad, deep, challenging reading. In addition, the vast majority of the great thinkers of history have shared a passion for and dedication to reading and writing. By reading the works of important writers past and present, anyone can take part in a conversation about human existence that has gone on for over two millenia.

But this often requires walking past the tables of flashy, attractive, hardcover, fresh-off-the-press bestsellers and into the more forbidding and intimidating sections of literature and philosophy. It requires the reading of the "Great Books" (or "classics") that have stood the test of decades and centuries. The authors of these books dealt with the very same problems and questions that the men and women of today face, and they brought a level of profound understanding to their subjects that most of the popular writers of our day can only hope to approximate.

What's more, the language, vocabulary, and concepts writers like Plato and Shakespeare used to discuss ideas profoundly shaped our understanding of those ideas; they shaped the way we think and talk about human life. When we think through an idea or express our feelings, we are usually acting within the parameters set by the imaginations of our greatest writers: we think in their terms without being aware of it, because in many cases they are what we know - their work changed the history of ideas and thereby changed the conceptual, cultural, and political world we inhabit.

Our media is filled with references to our “21st-century” society and its unique challenges: globalization, technology, progress, the Internet, nuclear arms, genetic manipulation - all of these, we are told, signify that we are part of a world fundamentally different than that of our ancestors.

But it turns out that people in every age have felt their generation to be different from all who came before. In War and Peace, Tolstoy addresses this view. People of “limited intelligence,” Tolstoy writes, “imagine that human characteristics change with the times.” But War and Peace, like Hamlet, Paradise Lost, the Iliad, and the Bible (among many others), continues to speak to modern readers precisely because the differences and changes in human life across societies, cultures, and generations are outweighed by the continuities, the common human experience.

Birth and death, fear and hope, friendship and loneliness, belief and mythmaking - these are present everywhere and at all times. It would be intellectually crippling, therefore, for someone who hopes to be learned or well-read to ignore the classics because they are “old.” Their themes are timeless. If a book is still being read twenty, fifty, five-hundred, or two thousand years after it first appeared, all of those generations of readers who kept it alive must have found some value in it.

I am a firm believer in the value of putting the classics at the core of an education, but I also think it would be a mistake to stop there. More and more diverse writers are putting their thoughts on paper than ever before, and a few of them are producing some excellent literature. I try to keep up with Poetry magazine, for example, and I thoroughly enjoy the contemporary poetry I find there. Last year, I was blown away by Per Petterson’s novel Out Stealing Horses, which I picked up after reading a glowing review of it in the New York Times. Contemporary novelist Jim Harrison, a native of my home state of Michigan, is able to speak to me more immediately and directly than Plato or Shakespeare can because he is writing about places that are very meaningful to me. Resources such as the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and The Second Pass are great places to find reviews of contemporary literature. At the end of the year, these and other reviewers often create lists of the “Books of the Year,” and these are worth reading.

In short, if it is wrong to advocate doing away with the traditional canon of Western literature for whatever reason - because it is underinclusive and "politically incorrect," or because contemporary students supposedly cannot connect with it - it is equally hubristic to argue or imply, as do some of the most fervent advocates of the "Great Books" (Mortimer J. Adler, Harold Bloom, etc.), that little of value has been written since the mid-20th century. We live in unusually fertile intellectual and artistic times. Again, it bears repeating: more people from more places and backgrounds are writing and publishing than ever before, and we have more access to their work than ever before.

Setting literature aside for a moment, it is clear that natural science and the social sciences require that we give a great deal of weight to contemporary materials. The discipline of international relations, despite its roots in the ancient writings of Thucydides, has only existed in its current form for less than a century. In the realms of math and science, it seems reasonable to learn about biology and mathematics from the most comprehensive and up-to-date textbooks rather than directly from Darwin and Newton. And, in my view, no one should consider himself or herself educated who is fully ignorant of contemporary history and the basic conditions of the modern world, and these are things that can only be learned by becoming a regular reader of or listener to high-quality news sources.

The bottom line, however, is that no matter what your interest, becoming a serious and disciplined reader is the surest path to educational growth. Your local library should have a copy of Mortimer J. Adler’s classic How to Read a Book and Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan, both of which contain detailed lists of “the classics” and make a strong case for focusing your reading on them. A website run by Robert Teeter at is a fantastic resource: it contains the Adler and Fadiman lists along with many others, including non-Western canons.

Internet tools such as LibraryThing, Facebook (each profile has a "favorite books" section), and are good sources of recommendations, and countless syllabi from university courses covering every subject under the sun can be found by searching Google and various online syllabi databases. Subscribing to newspapers and journals in your areas of interest will give you access to current book reviews and advertisements.

And, finally, you should not be shy about soliciting book recommendations directly from readers you admire, as well as those who work with books and ideas for a living: journalists, librarians, booksellers, graduate students, professors, lawyers, teachers. The book that turns one person’s worldview upside down may hold little interest for the next person, but whatever your interests, by doing a bit of research you can easily find books from which you can learn a great deal.