What are the reasons, in this age of the iPhone, XBox, Playstation, etc., etc. to read books, especially the so-called “Great Books”? A great article by Victor Davis Hanson answers this. I’ll quote some excerpts, but the whole thing is worth reading.
1. Mental Exercise: The mind is a muscle. Without exercise, it reverts to mush. Watching most TV or using the normal electronic gadgetry does not tax us much — indeed that is by design the very purpose: to eliminate effort, worry, unease, and afterthought. . . . Reading alone enriches our vocabulary; it teaches us that good writing requires a sense of melody as well as a command of grammar. Soon those well-read become the well-spoken.
2. A Master of Words: Our current economy of expression cuts out wasted words and clauses, a sort of slimmed-down, electronic communication? Perhaps, but it also turns almost everything into instant bland hot cereal, as if we should gulp down oatmeal at every meal and survive well enough without the bother of salad, main course, and dessert. Each day our vocabulary shrinks, our thought patterns stagnate — if they are not renewed through fresh literature or intelligent conversation.
3. Humility and Technology: Technology has deluded the modern West. We equate widespread knowledge of how to use an iPad with collective wisdom. Technological progress is no guarantee of collective wisdom — other than an acknowledgement that there is a brilliant scientific elite that we foster and don’t kill off in exchange for the good stuff that they give us. There is an arrogance of an age that comes with access to always better stuff. New technology prompts an assumption that there are always better things to come. Not true. Life was far better in Rome in AD 25 than in AD 425. Would you like to buy a house in Detroit today or in 1940? Regress — material, intellectual, and moral — can be as common as progress, if each new generation proves a poor custodian of the laws, behavior, knowledge, and learning inherited from those now gone.
4. We Are Not Alone: Without some awareness that ideas are old and somewhat finite, and that we are young and ignorant, we assume that each new adventure must be novel because we alone — right now! — are experiencing it. If Barack Obama would read Procopius, he would learn the wages of his huge inefficient bureaucracy. Jerry Brown, the self-described Jesuit sage, should return to his St. Jerome, because the latter’s descriptions of an eroding Rome could just as well describe a drive down California’s Highway 99.
5. Archetypes: Reading literature endows us not just with a model of expression and thought, but also with a body of ideas — and the names, facts, and dates that we can draw on to elucidate them.
6. Transcendance: We all wish to live beyond the confines of our pathetic flesh and the limitations of the material world. I am here not just talking of religion, but rather of how shared ideas and learning trump age, race, class, gender, all the supposed barriers that only government alone can trample down.
7. Age and Wisdom: Literature and history become bulwarks from the cruel assaults of old age. I used to hike in the Attic hills with a group led by the septuagenarian, the legendary classical Greek scholar and topographer Eugene Vanderpool. He was to the eye almost decrepit — with few teeth (from the effects of malnourishment after internment in a German prisoner of war camp during the Nazi occupation of Athens) and recovering from a stroke.But as we hiked each Saturday he magically turned into 20-something like the rest of us, as if material existence were a bothersome afterthought.
We don’t need more technocrats who fool us that their Ivy League law degrees are synonymous with wisdom. They can be, but now are more likely not much more than tickets that allow an Eric Holder or Timothy Geithner into the first-class seating. I am not calling for us to be academics or scholastics with our noses in books or our heads up our posteriors; but to match physicality and pragmatism with occasional abstraction and reflection from the voices of the past — just a little, now and then, to remind us that Twitter or Facebook speed up communication, but can slow down thought.
Literature and history belong to us all. The recollection of ideas and thoughts can turn drudgery into something at least a little better. I once read Les Miserables and the memoirs of U.S. Grant simultaneously each night, and by day sprayed pre-emergent herbicide all day long. Gradually the leaks, the toxicity, and the monotony of one sprayed row after another vanished. My head had gone underground into 1832 Paris and then came out again to the tricky siege of Vicksburg. That trance could mean the herbicide might once or twice miss the berm (and we would not recommend that 757 pilots dip into their Tolstoy during autopilot sessions), but for a time I was no longer cold and wet.
Somehow we must convince this new wired generation that speaking and writing well are not just the DSL lines of modern civilization, but also the keys to self-mastery, a sort of code that one takes on — in addition to others, moral and legal — to uphold standards of culture itself, to keep the work and ideas alive of our long gone betters for one more generation — as if to say, “I did my part according to my time and station.”Nothing more, nothing less.