June 27, 2004

DEMOCRACY OF THE DEAD (via The Mother Judd):

Books Make You a Boring Person (CRISTINA NEHRING, 6/27/04, NY Times)

It is easy to fetishize things that we imagine are on their way out. In the age of Comcast and America Online, books seem quaint, whimsical, imperiled and therefore virtuous. We assume that reading requires a formidable intellect. We forget that books were the television of previous years -- by which I mean they were the source of passive entertainment as well as occasional enlightenment, of social alienation as well as private joy, of idleness as well as inspiration. Books were a mixed bag, and they still are. Books could be used or misused, and they still can be.

Writers themselves carried on about their danger. From Seneca in the first century to Montaigne in the 16th, Samuel Johnson in the 18th and William Hazlitt and Emerson in the 19th, writers have been at pains to remind their readers not to read too much. ''Our minds are swamped by too much study,'' Montaigne wrote, ''just as plants are swamped by too much water or lamps by too much oil.'' By filling yourself up with too much of other folks' thought, you can lose the capacity and incentive to think for yourself. We all know people who have read everything and have nothing to say. We all know people who use a text the way others use Muzak: to stave off the silence of their minds. These people may have a comic book in the bathroom, a newspaper on the breakfast table, a novel over lunch, a magazine in the dentist's office, a biography on the kitchen counter, a political expose in bed, a paperback on every surface of their home and a weekly in their back pocket lest they ever have an empty moment. Some will be geniuses; others will be simple text grazers: always nibbling, never digesting -- ever consuming, never creating.

''You might as well ask the paralytic to leap from his chair and throw away his crutch,'' Hazlitt said, ''as expect the learned reader to throw down his book and think for himself. He clings to it for his intellectual support; and his dread of being left to himself is like the horror of a vacuum.'' Such a one is comparable to a person addicted to talk shows or sitcoms or CNN; no worse and no better, no dumber but no smarter either. It is not because something comes between two covers that it is inherently superior to what passes on a screen or arrives on the airwaves.

There is, of course, a good way of reading -- a very good way, and the thinkers of old knew it. They were all readers, though none of them were smug readers: they did not expect compliments but rather offered excuses for their book consumption. ''Undoubtedly there is a right way of reading, so it be sternly subordinated,'' Emerson wrote. Thinking people ''must not be subdued'' by their ''instruments'' -- that is, by their library. They must be the master of it. They must measure a book's testimony against their own; they must alternate their attention to it with an even more passionate and scrupulous attention to the world around them. ''Books are for the scholar's idle times,'' Emerson said in a statement most academics today would find surprising, if not shocking.

The point is this: There are two very different ways to use books. One is to provoke our own judgments, and the other, by far the more common, is to make such conclusions unnecessary. If we wish to embrace the first, we cannot afford to be adulatory of books in the manner of Moskowitz; we must be aggressive. Even a hint of idolatry disables the mind. ''Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books,'' Emerson reminded us -- at a time when he was, admittedly, already a middle-aged man in a library.

Perhaps the best lesson of books is not to venerate them -- or at least never to hold them in higher esteem than our own faculties, our own experience, our own peers, our own dialogues.

Here's a handy rule of thumb: life is too short to waste it on discussions with folks who don't recognize that Cicero, Locke and Bacon outrank their own peers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2004 5:07 PM

Well, except for Rigoberta Menchu.

Posted by: Peter B at June 27, 2004 5:58 PM

Not many books are read after a few hundred years.

Assuming everybody here has read Locke (I read parts in college, but only parts), what other English books of the 17th century has anyone read?

Not many, I bet.

The idea that only the ancients knew anything was what secularism overthrew. Otherwise, we'd still be writing with goose quills.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 27, 2004 7:42 PM

King James Bible, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Milton, Pilgrim's Progress...

Nothing written after 1800 has been necessary.

Posted by: oj at June 27, 2004 7:49 PM

Shakespeare wrote in the 16th century.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 27, 2004 8:20 PM

Necessary for what?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 27, 2004 8:22 PM

Nothing written after 1800 has been necessary.

Why do you keep writing?

Posted by: PKN at June 27, 2004 9:03 PM

PKN: I imagine "fun" is involved.

Harry: Yeah, Lord knows the printing press was an Enlightenment invention. And steel! Shall I go on?

Posted by: Chris at June 27, 2004 9:08 PM

And the better rule of thumb is, never listen to a danged word Emerson wrote or said in his entire life.

Posted by: Chris at June 27, 2004 9:20 PM

oj - I also recommend Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1631); and the works of Richard Baxter, the great Puritan (1615-1691).

Posted by: pj at June 27, 2004 10:25 PM


To point that out.

Posted by: oj at June 27, 2004 11:19 PM

Some post-1800 writers that OJ considers "unnecessary":

Orwell, Twain, Austen, Tolstoy, Kipling

Posted by: Brandon at June 27, 2004 11:31 PM


All they do is remind a forgetful people that we'd figured it all out by 1800. No sensible person needs Orwell to tell them that the 20th Century was a mistake.

Posted by: oj at June 27, 2004 11:48 PM

Brandon: Austen started writing before 1800.

Posted by: Chris at June 28, 2004 7:41 AM

Does fiction count?

Posted by: Bartman at June 28, 2004 8:40 AM


It's not necessary.

Posted by: oj at June 28, 2004 9:00 AM

What about MacMillan's "Baseball Encyclopedia". Not quite as important as oxygen, but close.

Posted by: Jeff at June 28, 2004 10:39 AM

Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Waugh, Wodehouse?

Posted by: J.K. at June 28, 2004 1:54 PM


Posted by: oj at June 28, 2004 2:42 PM


And Enjoy.


Posted by: Mike at June 28, 2004 3:20 PM

C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton

Posted by: Gideon at June 28, 2004 4:18 PM

Shakespeare wrote 'The Tempest' in about 1611, so that counts.

There are some other 17th c. English books that could be -- and should be -- read for pleasure and profit, but nobody does. 'Compleat Angler.' Dampier's 'Voyages.' And, I hope because I'm saving it for my declining years, Clarendon.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 28, 2004 7:51 PM

Effectively refuting your own point.

Posted by: oj at June 28, 2004 8:15 PM

So why are Shakespeare, Milton, Pilgrim's Progress or the King James Bible necessary? Why are any books necessary, for that matter? Necessary for what?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 28, 2004 10:23 PM


It was necessary to figure out how to arrange human affairs: once you have the Bible, Adam Smith, and the Founding you've got the religious, economic and political spheres explained and the rest is just reminding folks what was figured out by 1800.

Posted by: oj at June 28, 2004 11:31 PM