What is a classic book?

Italo Calvino defined it is as a work that “has never finished saying what it has to say.” Ezra Pound said it possesses “a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” And the 19th century French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve declared that “[it] has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered.”

At first glance, these definitions of classic/great books seem on the mark. Under their umbrella of excellence we can fit undisputed works of genius from “The Iliad” and “The Divine Comedy” to “Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina” and “Invisible Man.”

Unfortunately, they rest on a fallacy – that any and every book that exhibits these qualities will be considered a classic. In fact, there are many works graced with eternal and irrepressible freshness that are not considered part of the canon. I could mention “A High Wind in Jamaica” by Richard Hughes, “With” by Donald Harington and “The Night Inspector” by Frederick Busch. Some readers will dispute those picks; most have their own list of unheralded masterpieces.

The definition of great books will never be settled by competing arguments. There are no objective criteria that can establish the qualities possessed exclusively by a small handful of works deemed classics. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to define what makes some works better than others – this is possible, necessary and great fun. But it suggests that other, long ignored factors drive our definition of classic/great books.

What’s been missing from this discussion is data. That’s what I’ve been accumulating since 2006 when I began asking leading British and American authors to send me their lists of the 10 greatest works of fiction of all time – including novels, short stories, poetry and plays. Peter Carey, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx and Tom Wolfe are among the 150 contributors. Their lists – available at www.toptenbooks.net – represent the most authoritative sampling available on great books.

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George Will and the Herbert Principle

In his column arguing that owner Daniel Snyder should change the name of the Washington Redskins, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes: “Snyder remains tone-deaf to the major spiritual tenet that if even one person is offended, that is one too many.”

Who knew fascism had spiritual tenets?

Anyone who is paying attention, as we are learning in this era of trigger warnings and constant efforts to destroy people who do not espouse correct views. the latest victim is George Will, whose column was dropped by the St. Louis Dispatch after he wrote about sexual assault on college campuses.

The piece was not right or wrong, just well-reasoned. The paper’s editors must have felt this way because they ran it. Then the activists – led by the well-funded national group Media Matters – started to complain. The editors quickly caved, deciding to stop running Will’s column because, they claimed, his last one “suggested that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy a privileged status.”

Read the column yourself and decide if the paper’s characterization has any basis in reality.

Will is just the latest victim of Herbert Principle – which is just one more way some liberals seek to silence their opponents. It is frightening.

Climate Change Hoax

I often wonder if liberals are really as freaked out by climate change as they’d have us believe. If I thought apocalypse was in the cards if we didn’t make some changes fast, I would stop flying private. I might even sell my second home. If I were President, I certainly wouldn’t vacation in Hawaii. Just saying.

But then, liberals always counter that their individual actions don’t matter much. What we need to do is force everyone to just stop! Though I suspect they are playing a double game here: They know radical sacrifices will never be imposed, so why not favor them? And, if they were, most liberals fretting about climate change know they have enough money to avoid any painful impacts (that’s also their logic on the single-payer health care).

Anyway, I was reminded of this while reading about President Obama’s “landmark” proposal on climate change. The Times reports that the plan calls for the US to “cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.”

Here’s the thing, we’ve already cut emissions by about 11.5 percent since 2005. In large part thanks to natural gas – Obama may not be good, but he is fracking lucky. Ultimately, his proposal requires us to stay on our current path – that bad news is that includes reductions that have occurred thanks to his job-killing policies. Though the Chamber of Commerce is being depicted as the main enemy of this modest plan, the real push back will come from Democrats who oppose the fracking that will allow us to replace more dirty coal with cleaner burning natural gas.

After all that, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told NPR today that in 2030, coal will still provide about 31 percent of the nation’s electricity under Obama’s plan, from about 40 percent tdoay!

I am not calling for a tougher plan. Though I am not convinced that mankind is behind the recent changes in climate, I’m happy to burn gas instead of coal. I hope renewable sources of energy make economic sense in the near future.

But if I truly believed climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our generation, I would try to do a lot more than stay the course.It makes me wonder if their passionate intensity is a hoax.

Senior Citizen Sex Change

I can’t imagine what it would it would be like to be a man trapped in a woman’s body – or vice-versa.  My best guess is that it would be terribly painful and frustrating. If people in this terrible situation can’t afford the operation that might bring them peace, I would hope that the government might help.

However, there are limits. And it strikes me that the government has exceeded them once more with its announcement that it is lifting its ban on Medicare coverage for sex change operations. I am going to assume that the transgender woman who brought the case, Denee Mallon, would benefit from the surgery. The problem is, she is 74 years-old and the operation costs somewhere between $10,000 and $50,000.

Our federal government owes $16 trillion. Projected spending is on an unsustainable path, with health care devouring an ever-growing share of our economy. At some point we have to stop saying yes. Providing sex change surgery to a senior citizen sounds like a good place to start.

If Ms. Mallon were a 25-year-old, I could see the long-term benefit. But she is 74.

This reminds me of my greatest regret about the Republican response to Obamacare – its incessant attacks on death panels. I do not want the government deciding how to ration medical care; on the other hand, a responsible conservative must say that we cannot provide everything to everybody. In politics we too often turn math problems into moral issues. In so many cases it’s not a question of what’s right or wrong but can we afford it?  We have to get better at saying we can’t.

Climate Change Confusion

I raised some questions about what we know about climate change in my last column for the News & Observer.

I have another questions after reading an Op-ed in the NY Times on the subject, “Climate Change Doomed the Ancients.”

Writer Eric H. Cline offers his article as a bit of instruction for Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a stalwart believer that global warming is a ‘hoax.’ Perhaps the senator needs a history lesson, because climate change has been leading to global conflict — and even the collapse of civilizations — for more than 3,000 years. Drought and famine led to internal rebellions in some societies and the sacking of others, as people fleeing hardship at home became conquerors abroad.”

Here’s my confusion. People like Inhofe do not dispute that the climate has changed. They question whether those changes have been caused by people – primarily through the burning of fossil fuels. My guess is that Cline, a professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University, thinks he’s making the case that climate change can have devastating effects, so we better act now.

But as I read the piece, he seems to be saying that climate change is a natural phenomenon that had ruinous effects before Henry Ford was a gleam in his mama’s eye.

Is Cline a denier posing as an alarmist?

Can businesses just say no?

I have a question. There was appropriate outrage when Arizona and other states considered bills that would allow individuals to not do business other individuals because the transaction would offend their religious sensibilities. For instance, a baker would not be forced to make a wedding cake for a same sex marriage. Now I read that the gay man who has cut New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez’s hair three times – which, from what I know doesn’t really make him her stylist because most women are more loyal to their stylists than their husbands – refusing to touch another lock on her head because of her opposition to gay marriage.

There is certainly a difference between a state passing a law about such things and individuals choices. And there is a difference between discriminating against someone because of who they are and because of what they believe. But is that it?

I am wondering if there is some other principle that would help me think about these cases. I understand where the hair dresser is coming from but how about the pro-choice barista who won’t serve pro-lifers picketing at the Planned Parenthood office next door or the conservative restaurant owner who won’t sell hamburgers to the Occupy Wall Street people?

The stylist reportedly left a message for the governor saying, “I am going to let all gay people know,” he continued, “stop serving you, stop providing you with what you need.” Is this any different from a boycott?

Basically, should people be able to refuse service to anyone so long as they do not break the law (race, gender, etc.)? From an ethical standpoint are we free simply to support those we agree with and condemn those with whom we disagree?

Another Personal Attack on Clarence Thomas

To state the obvious, the left has never liked Clarence Thomas. What’s interesting is how often they train their sites on his personal behavior rather than his judicial rulings.

Jeffrey Toobin provides the latest example in a disgracefully titled New Yorker piece, “Clarence Thomas’ Disgraceful Silence.” Justice Thomas hasn’t asked a question during oral arguments at the Supreme Court since Feb. 22, 2006, so today is the eighth anniversary of his vow of silence. Toobin is not breaking ground. This story has become an annual ritual the last few years for those who’ve never forgiven Thomas for not withdrawing his nomination when Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment.

Since then he has suffered countless insults to his personal character. Funnily enough, it was Jeffery Toobin who came to his rescue a few years ago with a New Yorker piece noting his profound influence on the Court.

Toobin’s latest piece seems like an excuse to run a nasty headline about Thomas. In it he substitutes projection for evidence. Instead of provide insight into the dark world of the court, he is content to launch more attacks on the left’s favorite whipping boy.

Toobin writes that during arguments, “Thomas only reclines; his leather chair is pitched so that he can stare at the ceiling, which he does at length. He strokes his chin. His eyelids look heavy. Every schoolteacher knows this look. It’s called ‘not paying attention.’ ” Glad to know teachers are mind readers.

If Thomas truly is not paying attention, this should be easy enough to demonstrate by quoting his sloppy opinions. Not only does Toobin fail to provide such support, he doesn’t event hint at it. The bottom line question is not whether he seems to be listening but whether his work product – the laws of the land he is fashioning – is shows care.

Toobin also fails to make the case that oral arguments really matter. Given that Justices have lengthy, well-prepared briefs on the cases, one has to wonder how much of a difference these short discussions make. Perhaps they are largely theater and Thomas is the only one unwilling to further the charade. If Toobin disagrees, he should have provided a few examples where questions raised during oral argument turned the tide of history.

The best he can come up with is the comically obtuse charge that Thomas is failing the Court and America by keeping silent because oral arguments “are, in fact, the public’s only windows onto the Justices’ thought processes.”

What then are the opinions?

Cultural Cowardice

In his Feb. 18 column, David Brooks uses the story of the Prodigal Son to explore contemporary social dynamics. He writes:

“We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: ‘You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.’

“But the father in this parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism. The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart.”

What a load of nonsense. To begin, the qualities that enable one to become a contributing member of society – working hard, playing by the rules – have nothing to do with questions of good and evil.

I agree that one group should not self-righteously lecture another but only because this is a poor strategy for persuasion. On the other hand, a group that is taxed to the hilt to support their fellow citizens should have some right to expect certain conduct from their beneficiaries. If a goal of society to help people not just reach their potential but stand on their own two feet then it seems appropriate to hold up folks who have accomplished that as role models.

The main problem here is the pervasive moral relativism and cultural cowardice that Brooks’ views represent. One of the great problems in America is that successful people tend to live by traditional values – they work hard, have children after marriage, stay married, and even go to church at higher rates – yet they are afraid to trumpet them. This does more harm to the poor than any budget cut. The one exception is identity politics; there the powers that be are eager to punish those who stray from their orthodoxy (eg. Paula Deen and Phil Roberts). I wish they would exhibit the same confidence in regards to other values issues.

Can the rich cover the poor?

I have begun wondering if one result of the inequality developing in America is that the highly educated people who get paid to diagnose the country’s problems have precious little knowledge about the poor. That is, whenever they describe the poor, they tend to ascribe to them the values of the upper middle class. In their minds, the poor want to work hard, have 2.5 children, a house with a white picket fence, drink wine with their book club friends, etc. My questions have been prompted by Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart,” which suggests that many poor Americans have different values than their richer countrymen.

I was thinking about that while reading a Sunday Review piece in today’s Times on modern marriage. About 90 percent of it charted broad changes in marriage over time. The basic idea was that poor, middle and rich – we were all governed by these general trends. Briefly, since the 1960s we have become much more selfish about marriage looking it as a means of personal fulfillment rather than a partnership.

At the end, we get this:

“Though this is not a specifically socioeconomic phenomenon, it does have a socioeconomic dimension. One of the most disturbing facts about American marriage today is that while divorce increased at similar rates for the wealthy and the poor in the 1960s and ’70s, those rates diverged sharply starting around 1980. According to the sociologist Steven P. Martin, among Americans who married between 1975 and 1979, the 10-year divorce rate was 28 percent among people without a high school education and 18 percent among people with at least a college degree: a 10 percentage point difference. But among Americans who married between 1990 and 1994, the parallel divorce rates were 46 percent and 16 percent: an astonishing 30 percentage point difference.

“The problem is not that poor people fail to appreciate the importance of marriage, nor is it that poor and wealthy Americans differ in which factors they believe are important in a good marriage. The problem is that the same trends that have exacerbated inequality since 1980 — unemployment, juggling multiple jobs and so on — have also made it increasingly difficult for less wealthy Americans to invest the time and other resources needed to sustain a strong marital bond.”

I drew three things from this. First, here was an entire piece about marriage that didn’t get to the startling news until the end. You can bet that if the numbers were reversed and the rich were far more likely to get divorced, that stat would have been in the lede.

Second, is the assumption that the poor want exactly the same things from marriage that the better off do. This seems logical – why shouldn’t they want all the good things I do? But I would love to see some evidence. These are scholars, after all! Is it possible that the life experience of many of the poor has led them to see marriage differently?

Third, I love the conflation of unemployment and juggling many jobs. In my experience these facts often produce very different results. People who are working many jobs are not bone tired and unable to meet their commitments but highly effective people who are far more likely to find the time to invest in their relationships – and help their kids with their homework – than the chronically unemployed. I don’t have stats to back that up and maybe I’m wrong. But lumping all poor people together doesn’t seem right.