Tuesday, January 01, 2008
David's Bookshelf Year End
A couple of months ago, a reader of the Bookshelf series emailed me the following question. I promised him an answer in this space, but current events interposed. With the year turning, now seems a good time to take on:
I studied accounting in college, so I didn't end up in many civics/history courses. I feel like I'm missing out on some important books that I should have read. I've enjoyed your bookshelf, but I feel like I need to start at the beginning rather than jump in midway. Do you have a few books any breathing person needs to read?
Not so long ago, very smart people invested considerable energy producing lists of indispensable books. In the 1950s, the popular philosopher Mortimer Adler (yes, there really used to be a category of "popular philosopher") persuaded the Encylopedia Britannica company to publish a 54-volume anthology of these great books in a uniform edition. (Here's the list.)
Half a century earlier, Harvard president Charles Eliot had compiled his famous "Five Foot Shelf" of reading sufficient to constitute a liberal education in itself. The first edition was published in 1909. My parents somehow inherited a set of them, and I still remember the imposing look of their charcoal spines - the spines being all I ever saw, for I cannot remember ever opening a one of them.
Eliot aimed his series at the ambitious self-improving reader: not for nothing was the first title in the series the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. The five-foot shelf - and its accompanying promise that one could attain a liberal education with 15 minutes of serious reading per day - was exactly the sort of enterprise to which Franklin would have warmed!
A century later, Eliot's list suffers from the obvious and inevitable problem that it omits the masterworks of the 20th century: no Joyce, no Eliot, no Proust, no Mann, no Freud, no Hemingway, no Hayek, no Keynes. Many of Eliot's judgments look rather weird in retrospect. Do we really need to read the writings of Lister and Pasteur? A whole volume devoted to Robert Burns?? Eliot carefully eschewed anything shocking or disturbing. Hence, no Nietzsche, no Zola, no Ibsen. Like many upper-class Bostonians of his time and place, Eliot was almost more English than American. Ergo, no Federalist Papers, no Grant's Memoirs, no Huck Finn or Moby Dick.
Adler had a very different purpose - and achieved a very different result.
Unlike Eliot, Adler was no grand gentleman. The son of a Jewish immigrant salesman, Adler dropped out of school at 14 and worked as a copy boy at a newspaper. The young Adler took night classes at Columbia, won a scholarship, and eventually was hired as an instructor. (He flunked gym, however, and so never received a BA!)
Adler was profoundly affected by the rise of fascism, which he interpreted as a radical and nihilistic repudiation of the edifice of Western thought dating back to the Greeks and as sustained by the Thomistic tradition of the Catholic church. Adler was baptised a Roman Catholic at age 98, shortly before his death in the summer of 2001.
A brilliantly effective lecturer and teacher, Adler won a national audience for his vision of a grand tradition of great books. Adler and his friend Robert Hutchins made the "great books" approach the core of the curriculum at the new University of Chicago, and in turn inspired similar curricula at St. John's and other colleges. (I took a version of the Adler course myself, the Directed Studies program at Yale.)
Key word in that experience however was "directed." I really wonder how much value any modern reader will get pulling the Nichomachean Ethics off the shelf and plunging into it unaided. My doubts are reinforced every time I see the Adler collection on a home office shelf or at an estate sale: Almost without exception, the volumes look pristine and untouched.
While Adler's collection is much larger than Eliot's - and certainly less idiosyncratic and out of date - it is also somehow more limited and more tendentious.
Adler includes virtually every surviving Greek play, almost all of Aristotle and Plato, and huge masses even of Greek mathematics - but only two Russian novels and nothing at all from 19th century France!
Adler is an advocate not only for a canon, but also for a certain way of reading that canon: his Thomistic "Great Tradition" or "Great Conversation." This advocacy can deteriorate into an attempt not only to direct our reading, but our thinking - and an attempt that does considerable distortion to the books themselves. In this regard, Adler's omission of Nietzsche begins to look almost like a deliberate act of suppression.
Nietzsche is not much of a guide to life, I'll agree. But he - and other similarly corrosive thinkers, like John Maynard Keynes - offer a challenge that intelligent conservatives cannot disregard. Otherwise, the so-called Great Tradition degenerates into an exercise in mere curatorship, not living thought.
The Wikipedia entry on the Adler anthology tells a story:
[The work] was presented at a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City on April 15, 1952. In a speech made that night, [Robert] Hutchins said "This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind." It was decided that the first two volumes would be presented to Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and U.S. President Harry S. Truman.
This is the West. Sounds like an epitaph. Which may explain why Adler's anthology so often functions as a monument on a living room wall - not as a library in which to read and from which to learn.
The task of coming up with reading lists is never easy, and often arbitrary. Pressed once by a friend very actively engaged in politics and trans-Atlantic affairs, I fired off this off-the-cuff list of necessary books on politics and history:
Hayek's Constitution of Liberty - the best introduction to the conservative case for limited government.
Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a great introduction to the drama of what happened in 1776.
Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution - everyone reads Democracy in AMerica, but this book is a better introduction to France & French history than anything the maitre wrote about the US.
Vol. 2 of Robert Skidelsky's Biography of JM Keynes - a great introduction to the financial history of our century.
R. SHerwood, Roosevelt & Hopkins. The best ever white House memoir, and one that summons up the most intense description of Washington in the olden days before imperial power. If you make it to the WHite House, it'll help you feel like you were there all along. It's long, but the last 1/3 is far less interesting ....
Richard Pipes, first volume of his trilogy on the Russian Revolution - shows you the continuity of Russian history and how Putinism throws back to czarism.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital. Ignore the awful title - a great introduction to problems of third world development. (Disclosure: I ghostwrote it, but the research & concepts are all his ...)
Robert Axelrod, The Origins of Cooperation: very short but fascinating study of the robustness of human cooperation, growing out of a fascinating computer experiment.
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. My hero! - also the founder of the financial system of the United States, and a man around whom all practical govt debates tend always to revolve.
Philippe Roger The American Enemy - a great study of anti-Americanism, a dominant ideology of our time .
James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy. The eternal subject!
Allen Guelzo, Redeemer President. A great book about the greatest president.
Fiction & literature are very subjective. Marcel Proust is my all-time favorite novelist, the one I could read and re-read endlessly .. if you are ever moved to try him, skip over the Overture (Proust at his fruitiest, in prose I mean, not behavior) and go straight to Swann's Way. Read 50 pages. You'll either find you cannot stop or cannot continue.
The greatest American novels? Great Gatsby and the Scarlet Letter. Followed by Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. American Pastoral the only contemporary American novel that stays with me.
But all such lists are very random!
So unfortunately they are.
Still, here is my one final practical suggestion:
When I was in law school, I devised my own idiosyncratic solution to the problem of studying a topic I knew nothing about. I'd wander into the library stacks, head to the relevant section, and pluck a book at random. I'd flip to the footnotes, and write down the books that seemed to occur most often. Then I'd pull them off the shelves, read their footnotes, and look at those books. It usually took only 2 or 3 rounds of this exercise before I had a pretty fair idea of who were the leading authorities in the field. After reading 3 or 4 of those books, I usually had at least enough orientation in the subject to understand what the main questions at issue were - and to seek my own answers, always provisional, always subject to new understanding, always requiring new reading and new thinking.
That's what I try to do here in this space. I'm glad to hear from so many that this bookshelf series has been helpful and enjoyable. It will continue in 2008, along with my best wishes for a happy and healthy new year to all who take the trouble to drop by. I thank you for your readership, your kind words, and (most indispensable of all!) your corrections and criticism.
01/01 09:27 AM