The Real Power of Books

To mark the publication of my new book, “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture,” I’ll be posting an essay from it each day.

The sun was sitting high in the sky and I was near a shady tree as my kids splashed in the pool. Life is good.

Then I picked up the paper: bombings in Syria, genocide in Kenya, massacres in Iraq.

I looked back at my children, smiled, then marveled at the mind’s capacity to take in all the information of the world and then judge our well-being by what’s in front of our noses. It’s the same thought I have whenever my wife and I discuss our pressing need to add another room to our fairly spacious home, or when I conclude that I really do need a new DVD player or component for my stereo system. I know that there are people in far-flung spots consigned to circumstances so abject they are almost beyond imagining. And yet my desires don’t fade—and still I feel good about myself, still consider myself a good person.

This dynamic is particularly troubling for us book-lovers. Besides being a great source of pleasure, books are our primary gateway to other lives and cultures. If books serve a larger purpose, it is their power to brake our god-given selfishness. Nature primes us to look out for ourselves; few of us require help in that regard. What most of us need are constant reminders to consider everyone else, to imagine their needs, hopes, desires and circumstances.

Personal experience has convinced me that books are both the greatest tool for empathy we have created and totally inadequate to the task. Some of the best-read people I know are among the nastiest and most selfish individuals I’ve never wanted to know. For every person I’ve met whose character was edified by the written word, scores more leave me wondering how someone who has devoured so much wisdom can be so small-minded.

I know this to be true: Books do not make us better people. They may show us the big picture, but they inspire precious few of us to put away our petty personal concerns. Even the best books cannot make us replace selfishness with empathy.

I also know this to be true: All that is dead wrong. Books make our world a far kinder, more just and empathetic place.

To reconcile these conflicting beliefs, consider the Paradox of Reading: Though books make none of us better people, they make all of us better—even those who don’t read.

Western history makes this strange notion clear. Remember the world into which Johann Gutenberg introduced his printing press around 1453: Slavery was rampant, women were treated as men’s property, and stiff class structures stifled almost everyone’s aspirations.

Gutenberg’s invention changed that. As his press enabled the relatively cheap and easy dissemination of ideas, the status quo came under intense scrutiny. Writers began asking lofty questions about how people should interact. The Renaissance flourished, then the Enlightenment. Rights, equality and freedom became topics of discussion.

The writings of philosophers such as John Locke inspired our Founding Fathers to imagine a nation in which every citizen would be treated with dignity. Of course, we are painfully aware of how far the founders fell short of that goal. Western history since Gutenberg is filled with bloody wars and vicious ideologies—including colonialism and Nazism—that have challenged this story of progress, urging us to see others as less than human.

Progress doesn’t follow a straight line. Our instinct to look out for ourselves, to only consider our needs, is powerful.

What’s striking is not that this selfishness endures, but that we’ve made such strides in neutralizing it. It is no coincidence that the civil rights movements that have transformed America in the past 60 years occurred at the same time that we expanded access to higher education. When I look at the great strides made by women and African-Americans, as I watch gays and lesbians move toward full equality, I am amazed that anyone can long for the past. Our world is a better place, getting better all the time.

And books are a chief cause. This point is overlooked because while our minds act locally, books work globally. Our instinct is to measure books by their power to transform us personally. What can you do for me? But books operate on a wider scale—slowly but surely changing the values of the larger culture. We, in turn, inherit these assumptions, which shape our standards and expectations.

On the whole, I am a better, more caring and empathetic person than my ancestors who lived in the Jim Crow South. This is not because I’ve paid more attention to my morality. I just happen to live in a more moral world, one that has been shaped and improved by books.

Lack of Curiosity is Curious

To mark the publication of my new book, “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture,” I’ll be posting an essay from it each day.  

Lack of curiosity is curious (Nov. 6, 2005)

Over dinner a few weeks ago, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff told a troubling story. He asked students in his introduction to creative writing course at UNC-Chapel Hill if they had read Jack Kerouac. Nobody raised their hand. Then he asked if anyone had ever heard of Jack Kerouac. More blank expressions.

Naumoff began describing the legend of the literary wild man. One student offered that he had a teacher who was just as crazy. Naumoff asked the professor’s name. The student said he didn’t know. Naumoff then asked this oblivious scholar, “Do you know my name?”

After a long pause, the young man replied, “No.”

“I guess I’ve always known that many students are just taking my course to get a requirement out of the way,” Naumoff said. “But it was disheartening to see that some couldn’t even go to the trouble of finding out the name of the person teaching the course.”

The floodgates were opened and the other UNC professors at the dinner began sharing their own dispiriting stories about the troubling state of curiosity on campus. Their experiences echoed the complaints voiced by many of my book reviewers who teach at some of the nation’s best schools.

All of them have noted that such ignorance isn’t new—students have always possessed far less knowledge than they should, or think they have. But in the past, ignorance tended to be a source of shame and motivation. Students were far more likely to be troubled by not-knowing, far more eager to fill such gaps by learning. As one of my reviewers, Stanley Trachtenberg, once said, “It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care about what they don’t know.”

This lack of curiosity is especially disturbing because it infects our broader culture. Unfortunately, it seems both inevitable and incurable.

In our increasingly complex world, the amount of information required to master any particular discipline—e.g. computers, life insurance, medicine—has expanded exponentially. We are forced to become specialists, people who know more and more about less and less.

This is occurring at a time when Americans increasingly put work at the center of their lives even as the rise of globalization and other free market approaches have turned job security into an anachronism. In this frightening new world, students do not turn to universities for mind expansion but vocational training. In the parlance of journalism, they want news they can use.

Upon graduation, they must devote ever more energy to mastering the floods of information that might help them keep their wobbly jobs. Crunched, they have little time to learn about far-flung subjects.

The narrowcasting of our lives is writ large in our culture. Faced with a near infinite range of knowledge, the Internet slices and dices it all into highly specialized niches that provide mountainous details about the slightest molehills. It is no wonder that the last mainstream outlet of general knowledge, the daily newspaper, is suffering declining readership. When people only care about what they care about, their desire to know something more, something new, evaporates like the morning dew.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. In comforting response to these exigencies, our culture gives us a pass, downplaying the importance of knowledge, culture, history and tradition. Not too long ago, students might have been embarrassed to admit they’d never heard of Jack Kerouac. Now they’re permitted to say “whatever.”

When was the last time you met anyone who was ashamed because they didn’t know something?

It hasn’t always been so. When my father, the son of Italian immigrants, was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, he aspired to be a learned man. Forced to go to work instead of college, he read “the best books,” listened to “the best music,” learned which fork to use for his salad. He watched Fred Astaire puttin’ on his top hat and tyin’ up his white tie, and dreamed of entering that world of distinction.

That mind-set seems as dead as my beloved Dad. The notion of an aspirational culture, in which one endeavors to learn what is right, proper and important in order to make something more of himself, is past.

In fairness, the assault on high culture and tradition that has transpired since the 1960s has paid great dividends, bringing long overdue attention to marginalized voices.

Unfortunately, this new freedom has sucker punched the notion of the educated person who is esteemed not because of the size of his bank account or the extent of his fame but the depth of his knowledge. Instead of a mainstream reverence for those who produce or appreciate works that represent the summit of human achievement, we have a corporatized and commodified culture that hypes the latest trend, the next new thing.

People are shaped by the world around them. In our here, now, get-the-job-done environment of modern America, the knowledge for knowledge’s sake ethos that is the foundation of a liberal arts education—and of a rich and satisfying life—has been shoved to the margins. Curiously, in a world where everything is worth knowing, nothing is.

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 – represent the most authoritative sampling available on great books.

Continue reading

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?