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.
This column appears in my new book, Off the Books: On Literature and Culture.