Is Reading Good Books Over?
There is great “truth and beauty” in Homer’s Iliad, but I would not try to make his sale on such platitudes. Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remains a classic. But I confess it can be hard to get through. Conrad’s Victory or Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, if authored by writer X this year, would be trashed on Amazon.
So what are the reasons, in this age of the iPhone, Xbox, and PlayStation — or Fox News blondes and HBO — to sit down and read old stuff for an hour or two each week?
Here are a few reasons other than the usual defense of the “classics,” the “canon,” and the glories of “Western civilization.”
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. None of us thinks back a year ago to a great video game session. Few off-hand can recall the Super Bowl winner of 2001. I remember the scenes in a Shane or Casablanca, but not many others in the other thousand of movies that I have watched.
By nature, our ways of expression and even thinking always fossilize and are withering away with age and monotony — a process accelerated by the modern electronic age and the neglect of replenishment through reading. The actual vocabulary of our present youth seems to me reduced to about 1,000 words or so. “Like,” “whatever,” “you know,” “cool,” and other pop culture fillers now substitute for entire phrases, a sort of modern porcine grunting. The Greeks used particles to accentuate vocabulary and guide syntax; we used them instead of vocabulary. Our syntax, both written and oral, is reverting to “Spot is a dog”: noun, verb, predicate — period. How did incomprehensible slang, spiced with vulgarity, become an object of emulation? I used to listen to farmers without college degrees speak wonderful English; now to listen to a member of Congress almost requires a translator.
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.
A Master of Words
Think for a minute: why did the Right often ignore the contradictions of Christopher Hitchens, and the Left mostly give up most of its anger at him? He was not necessarily a classically beautiful stylist, and could be needlessly cruel. He wrote no great history, no great novel, no great single essay that we can instantly recall in the manner of an Orwell or Chesterton. But Mr. Hitchens surely was a rare and gifted writer, polemicist, and savant. To read 800 words was to learn something new in passing. Even in his most ridiculous rant, a nugget of wisdom could be uncovered. A reference to an obscure Eastern European politician might appear side-by-side a line from Wordsworth — and would make a better illustration of his argument than just showcasing his erudition. He mastered the odd, even perverse turn of phrase, the ability to juxtapose the colloquialism next to Latinate pomposity, or to write a ridiculous 10-line long sentence, stuffed with semi-cola, dashes, cola, and commas, followed by a two-word noun-verb sentence that a five-year old could produce. In short, Hitchens was a voracious consumer of texts, and the result was that he achieved what the Roman student of rhetoric, Quintilian, once called variatio, the ability to mix up words and sentences and not bore. He could hold, even shock, the reader or listener from sentence to sentence, moment to moment.
But We Are So Much More to the Point
But you object that at least 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. Unfortunately these days, those who read are few and silent; those who don’t, numerous and heard. In this drought, Dante’s Inferno and William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico provide needed storms of new words, complex syntax, and fresh ideas.
Technology has deluded the modern West. We equate widespread knowledge of how to use an iPad with collective wisdom. Because a rare, brilliantly inventive mind from Caltech or MIT can craft a device undreamed of in the age of Einstein, we assume that we all warrant a share in his genius, as if our generation has trumped Einstein’s. We deserve no such kudos — unless animals at the zoo that find delight in their rote enjoyment of their hoops and bars can be credited with the architect’s sophisticated zoological design.
Pumps Are Not Water
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. Our California public schools rate about 48th or 49th these days in nationwide testing, while most of the state seems to have their heads permanently transfixed to iPhones. Do we believe then that the population is smarter because we know “apps” or because there is an Apple or Google headquarters full of engineers living in the cocoon of Silicon Valley?
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? Me? I would rather drive down the central section of 101 in 1970 than tomorrow. 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.
We Are Not Alone
No one in my town ripped out copper wire from the street lights in 1963 as they commonly do now; my grandfather contended with swarms of vine-hoppers and spider mites, not, as I do, with thieves who destroy pumps to scavenge conduit wire. I know that this will not be a problem in 2080 — either because such crime that threatens society must cease, or society as we know it will cease. Can we see these as symptoms, as something also beyond our present anguish, as challenges shared by Athenians, Romans, and Byzantines? We can — if we have some guide that turns the nonsense of today into the sense of the ages.
Not a poet in America today could match Virgil. Few, if any, of us historians could write with the flair and judgment of a Tacitus. But how would we know that — or care — if we did not read?
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 99. (Before a crumbling society can borrow billions for a high-speed rail to nowhere it might better bring out the dusty maps and charts of a dead generation of engineers that once bequeathed to us plans about how to finish a three-lane freeway without cross traffic.)
Ourselves and Our 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. When I used to follow the career of the brilliantly destructive Bill Clinton, he seemed to be Alcibiades reborn — and thus was surely bound to share the same fate of those with enormous talent who are consumed by their own huge and unrepressed appetites.
Richard Nixon jumped out of the pages Sophocles, another gifted Oedipus whose innate and unaddressed flaws were waiting dormant — for just the right occasion to explode him, for Nemesis to take him from the King of Thebes to itinerant blind beggar.
Obama? He came on the scene as arrogant and self-righteous as young Pentheus or Hippolytus and he is now learning firsthand the effects of his Euripidean smugness on others. Nothing that we experience has not happened before; the truly ignorant miss that, hypnotized by sophisticated technology into believing that human nature has been reinvented in their own image.
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.
At Fresno I used to teach works like Xenophon’s Hellenica or Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound in advanced Greek classes, usually to about 10 students. Some were 60 years old and retired. Some were physically disabled and rolled in on wheel chairs. Some were Mexican-American; some women; some Asian. Often an epileptic retiree, who took every Greek course offered, would have a seizure in class. Most were poor or of middle means; but I recall there were one or two millionaires as well.
The Point of Such “Diversity”?
There was no diversity.
When they translated or sounded off about Prometheus’s pontifications or nearly wept at poor Theramenes (who perhaps deserved his fate for his triangulation) being dragged off to his death, all “difference” disappeared. What we had in common vastly outweighed our class, gender, and racial distinctions. Thucydides could belong to an immigrant from Oaxaca as much as it did to me — or even more so.
It was almost as if the mind lived without a body or perhaps despite it. In his treatise on old age and again in the Pro Archia, Cicero made the argument that learning gives us a common bond. (omnes arts quae ad humanities pertinent habent quoddam commune vinclum et quasi cognatione quadam inter se continentur.)
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. He reminded me of David’s 18th-century painting of an elderly Belisarius asking for alms outside the Hippodrome.
But as we hiked each Saturday he quietly pointed out the pass where Mardonius retreated back to Boeotia in spring 479 B.C. before being obliterated with his Persians at the subsequent battle of Plataea. “Hanson,” he once whispered, “did you realize you just stepped on the Attic Orchid; can I tell you a little about this vanishing flower that you crushed?” Someone kicked up a clay loom weight. He smiled shyly at it, and in muffled voice muttered, “Hmmm, about 400 B.C.; there must be a classical farmhouse about here somewhere.” We walked right by blank rocks; he asked, “Did anyone see back there that horos inscription? It was a boundary marker, Hellenistic I imagine.”
When we got to the mountains overlooking the coast, he would rattle off the various armadas — Persian to nineteenth-century European — that had once docked below us. At 24, I felt like he was Napoleon addressing the Grand Army before the Pyramids. The result was that Mr. Vanderpool magically turned into 20-something like the rest of us, as if material existence were a bothersome afterthought. Our initial shock at his withered body vanished. He became almost an Apollo. I expected him to show up back at Athens at a Saturday night midnight disco bash to discourse on the Bee Gees as he had on the origins of ostracism.
Certificates of What?
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 (in those pre-green days, per acre: ½ pound of Simazine, ½ pound of Karmex, washed down with spreader and some Parquat) 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.
Links in the Chain
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.