April 6, 1999
readers of this space will observe that I habitually quote a handful
of classic writings, chiefly the Shakespeare works, Boswells
Life of Samuel Johnson, and The Federalist
Papers. If those readers suspect that these few masterpieces
pretty much exhaust my learning, they are correct.
When I was young, I bought the whole set
of Mortimer Adlers Great Books of the Western
World, intending to read them all. But somehow I never got around
to more than a few of them. Ditto the works of Dickens and Balzac.
Im a voracious reader, but most
of what I read is the most perishable kind of literature, journalism. After
all, journalism is my racket, and that means keeping up with things that
will soon be forgotten. So I start the day with several newspapers, but
seldom finish it with a classic I havent read before.
In Mark Twains famous definition,
a classic is a book everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.
Gulp! But those daunting all-time must-reading lists are a little
misleading. It can take years to master a single great author. Much of what
we know about the classics is what weve heard
about them in advance, and we may not get beyond their reputations until
weve read them several times.
Yet the few classics I know thoroughly
have been invaluable, even in my work as a journalist. To know a single old
book well, even if it hasnt been canonized as a
classic, is to have a certain anchorage you cant get
from most contemporary writing.
There are no particular classics, not even
Shakespeare, that you must read. But you should find a few
meritorious old writers you find absorbing and not only read them, but live
with them, until they become voices in your mind a sort of
internal council you can consult at any time.
When you internalize an author whose
vision or philosophy is both rich and out of fashion, you gain a certain
immunity from the pressures of the contemporary. The modern world, with
its fads, propaganda, and advertising, is forever trying to herd us into
conformity. Great literature can help us remain fad-proof.
The modern world is like a perpetual Nuremburg
rally: everything that was wrong with Nazi Germany is more or less
typical of other modern states, even those states that imagine they are
the opposite of Nazi Germany. Political enemies usually turn out to be
cousins, whose most violent differences are essentially superficial,
masking deeper agreements in principle. Stalin, Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt,
and Winston Churchill were closer to each other than they realized; so are
Bill Clinton and Slobodan Milosevic.
When confronted with a new topic or
political issue, I often ask myself what Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson,
Edmund Burke, or James Madison or, among more recent authors,
George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, or Michael Oakeshott would have
thought of it. Not that these men were always right: that would be
impossible, since they often disagree with each other. The great authors
have no specific message.
But at least they had minds of their own.
They werent mere products of the thought-factory we call
public opinion, which might be defined as what everyone
thinks everyone else thinks. They provide independent, poll-proof
standards of judgment, when the government, its schools, and the media,
using all the modern techniques of manipulation, try to breed mass
uniformity in order to make us more manageable.
Its up to us to maintain some
detachment, and the literature of the past helps make this possible.
Thats why tyrannical governments usually try to control,
marginalize, or even abolish that literature, especially religious
literature. This need not be achieved by overt censorship; it can be done
through school curricula, or in the name of the separation of church
The classics are those books that
discerning readers, over time, have recognized as offering fresh ways of
seeing the world news that stays new, as someone has
put it. It might also be called news that stays urgent.
And stays delightful. Theres
nothing quite like the joy of falling in love with an old book, finding a
mentor who speaks to you across the centuries.
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