Peggy Noonan is my favorite chef journaliste. Through thick and thin she always will be. Somehow she can dish up contentious issues, even conservative crabs, in a ladylike, almost poetic way, easy on the hot sauce, spreading aromatic oil on troubled waters, emulsifying crustaceans and brine into heavy hollandaise sauce, altogether satiating, sometimes exciting. She goes down my fragile octogenarian gullet smoothly. A whiplashing Ann Coulter she is not.
The title of a recent column of hers, (link) “Politics of The Shallows,” seemed to offer food for thought.
Into the pot, a commodious pot, she had stirred the familiar fixins -- our malnourished and stunted citizenry, rendered thus by pigging out on the multi-media’s vitamin-free toxic froth now served up almost exclusively on screens, shallower and shallower screens, approaching, as led by Apple, paper-thinness. To that familiar broth she added the seasonal catch, i.e., the two current presidential candidates, of opposite species but equally fishy.
For this column she was assisted by a guest chef, Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows, from which she took the title, and flavor, of her column. His is but the latest to flay all the non-book media starting with the camera obscura, I’ll bet. His harpoon is aimed at the web. Easy haul, for it's naught but shallows. Carr’s carping about the web reminds me of Minnow’s (serendipitous seafood trope there) lament as FCC chairman in 1961 that TV had become naught but a vast wasteland.
Sensing that her soupe du jour is just too watery and needs something to thicken it, Peggy tosses into her pot a wad of those dear old good-for-whatever-ails you greens, spinach when I was a kid, kale now, I suppose, -- those proverbial exhortations to read! Read books. Books-books-books! Read many, many books! Read many, many books deeply. Read more books…many…deeply.
Slivers of canned bleached curly kale, is that all there is? Where's the beef! This calls for a curmudgeonly feedback, my dear chef Peggy. A quick comment along with the 715 others published with her column would do. But I’d rather play with my food, so to speak. Please indulge an old man in his second childhood messing with his same old pureed spinach and getting it all over his face and highchair. If it turns into a foodfight, -- pie-in-the-face would be more fun than a kale poultice on the nose --I apologize in advance.
Well sure, a book is an intellectual studio prop, like that single homey low-budget Fox News set with the Kincaid reproductions on the wall, floor lamp with old-time lampshade, and – here it comes! -- the single Ikea bookcase with five cheap plain turquoise buckram-bound probably blank-page volumes taking up half of one shelf, always those same volumes, never touched or moved, serving as the backdrop for today's guest’s in-depth soliloquy.
Better, a whole library of books. A Victorian 2-story walnut-paneled library, every varnished mahogany shelf crammed with identically-sized and identically-bound elegantly hand-tooled heavy volumes, dusty, never touched. May I suggest that one eBook replaces a whole sprawling library?
Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the scholar's cloister or the family farm, or maybe in another galaxy, a book was not just a prop but everyday heavy duty food, as fundamental to existence as an iPhone now. Abraham Lincoln as an impoverished boy split rails to earn money for, of all things, a book (nowadays, comic books), and walked miles just to get his hands on one, he glutted on books, and the Gettysburg Address came from it. And owning a whole library was the strongest sign of accomplishment, noblesse, and intellectuality, not just posturing. Thomas Jefferson famously prized his, fondled and read and probably reread every volume, had his slaves dust them, and the Declaration of Independence came from it.
OK, books. I trust you won’t think this a niggling question, Peggy, but what books?
To me not very satiating, Peggy's answer is to read the book, don’t just watch the movie. Oh, that book, the novel the movie was taken from, the scanning of which imparts a deeper understanding of the human condition than hearing the same printed dialog actually spoken by expertly directed, repeatedly rehearsed award-winning human actors, that book?
Sorry, that’s all Noonan’s net netted. If she doesn’t list any books, the New York Times famously does – the NYT best-seller list, top-ten shallow list, I’d say. It’s what everybody is reading in anticipation of the movie. Or just check William O'Reilly's Killing list, which eventually will kill just about everybody of any consequence. With lists that shallow, maybe yours truly needs to compile one. Stay tuned.
But I well remember the mother of all such lists, recognized as automatic admission to the literati, the University of Chicago’s once glorious One Hundred Greatest Books of Western Civilization. Created in 1929 (year of my birth) by Morton Adler, a celebrity philosopher, and Robert Hutchins, the precocious celebrity president of the U. Chicago, the archetypal liberal arts university whence was to come a President Obama, that list was the crown and culmination of the bookish “movement” at US Universities that started at Harvard in 1909, and to this day at least 100 obscure wannabe Harvards are still spawning such lists. Just check Google.
And I remember the phonies of the 1930s in “Popular Mechanics” ads (I had a subscription). Every month, after skipping the article on the latest airplane-car chimera, I'd head for the ads. Right next to the Charles Atlas ad ("I was a 95# weakling"), there it was, the lavishly gilded volumes of great books. You could buy one a month forever, $1.50 each. I yearned for one at least, just to fondle, and dust. Maybe Santa will bring me 4 or 5! Sigh, Santa brought me a pony instead. Anyway my bookishness soon enough became otherwise directed, towards decidedly non-liberal but plenty bookish education – medicine. As an octogenarian I now don’t miss even the bindings. I read great eBooks, unbound and virtually rimless.
I look back at the titles in any of the hundreds of The Hundred Greatest Books of Western Civilization lists. A substantial majority are Novels: always Mark Twain, a couple of Russians, Faulkner and Steinbeck and Fitzgerald – Hemingway won a Nobel prize which didn't render him immune from a book-burning. For most of the lists Updike hadn’t been born yet. Plus the mandatory dose of Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, et al, and Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (the latter a favorite of Adler, who was Jewish), sometimes Voltaire and Whitman, throw in Thoreau. As a theorist more than a scientist, Darwin is allotted a class all his own. Other scientists, even Einstein (who, if the compilers had bothered to sit down and read him, is quite witty and wise), aren’t considered as foundational of civilization as novelists or Darwin, apparently. Moses? Must of missed him. Marx? How could I have missed him? But I’ve noted that Gilgamesh and Genesis, as examples of equally credible allegories, have sometimes made it, also Matthew as the record of the beatitudes, token maxims from the mouth of a memorable teacher, but never the book of John, where Christ proclaims His divinity unequivocally. I’ve looked closely for Paul (St. Paul), missed him too.
What constitutes a Great book is as moot as what constitutes kitsch. More sensitive (to me more kitschy) updated lists, favored by spiritually oriented ladies book clubs, include Buddha, Confucius, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Patanjali (Yoga), Muhammad and the Koran, and, say, The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami. Moses or Hemingway no way.
As it turned out not a single Great Book, however seductively bound, embellished my childhood shelves. Meanwhile, Adler and company, which by then included the Encyclopedia Britannica, having achieved effulgent critical but shallow financial success in academia, went door-to-door along with Fuller Brush and encyclopedias. In the 1930s and 40s that's where the money and the consumer wives were. In the 1960s wives, among them mine, were at supermarkets standing in checkout lines snatching up the National Enquirer, as well as, in those days, all 11 volumes of Will Durant's the whole of Story of Civilization at a buck or two each. Having of course glanced at the Enquirer, my wife, every time she trekked the line, grabbed a cheaply bound 3"-thick volume of Civilization and pitched it into her shopping cart along with the milk and cantaloupe, soon accumulating all 11. We both read every word of every page of every volume. Too bad Abe Lincoln lived before door-to-door or checkout lines.
But the Greatest Books lists, Adler's and Durant's, all of them, have quietly receded into deep past and are forgotten by all but octogenarians and nostalgia freaks and obscure universities that quietly grant them their due while loudly touting gender studies. The NYT and its Best Seller List on paper is fading, like old newsprint does. But now we have even greater access to books -- and much more -- than ever. Sitting there in your chair staring at your screen it’s just a click away -- the one resource Noonan fingers as the fount of all shallowness, Google. I’m older, but maybe less inflexible, than Peggy, and I see Google as Silicon Valley's genie and magic lantern and instant cornucopia of books, any books, lists of books (alas, "great books" are not among Google's top-ten clicks), and movie reviews, and opinion columns to suit any taste, and responses thereto. Rub Google once and you hit the book jackpot. You're in the thick of it. I couldn’t write my deep stuff, like this response to Peggy, without Google, in one second filling my screen with what I couldn’t find at a library in a month of research. I'm sure Abe would have clicked Google unrelentingly, on his iPhone. I’ll bet Peggy sneaks a Google search now and then.
So then, Peggy urges us to read, read a lot. My response is that, as a studious reader for 70 or 80 years, I’ve done just that and found it slim pickings. As a youth I went through a phase of reading fiction. I liked Hemingway, maybe because it was redolent of the KJV biblical cadence (naturally he was later expunged from sensitive reading lists). I liked Updike (I also liked his essays, but learned about them later in life). I confess I even read -- this will date me -- Jung's Fear of Flying, and was amused by the wit but surprised at the bad taste it left in my mouth. Didn't care for Faulkner (too shallow, even as fiction). Upon moving from our house in Ohio and my self-constructed shelves lining 3 walls of my 1.5 story library, I consigned the lot, plus all 11 Durant volumes, to 1-800-Got-Junk?'s dumpsters, slimming my library and swelling landfills and threatening the planet. And bought an eBook. Fingerprints on the screen, not dust, is the problem.
A little older, I read or scanned my share of philosophers, Plato most heavily if not deeply, accepting him as indeed the foundation of Western civilization, certainly contemporary Western culture, liberal arts colleges, Great Books, best sellers, checkout stand tabloids, eBooks and all. Speaking of a great philosophical-whimsical Plato read, you should check my own (link:) philosophizing on Plato, in the form of a park bench dialog, formatted thus in homage to Plato’s dialogs. But seriously, folks, if philosophy is your thing I’d recommend Peanuts (by Charles Schulz) over Plato.
A lot older, and having pursued that hoary old prescript to go read and read, read greedily and recklessly, I am left besotted, light-headed and dyspeptic, and wiser, so wise I am empowered, yea obligated, to dish out my own dose of physic. Yes, do read, read a lot, and read deeply, -- but not randomly, not just any book. Be careful, very careful, what you read. It isn’t how much you read, it’s what you read, not just to keep from going shallow but to keep from falling into the pit. Nowadays everybody knows that everything is toxic -- everything but what we read. I contend reading can be as toxic as asbestos gaskets. Using a screen metaphor, I contend that reading the wrong book -- watch out Fear of Flying, only a child's book of filth compared to the f-ng new stuff that would have been banned in Sodom -- is like clicking the wrong thing on the screen and being taken over by malware, worse yet, ransomware. Or dipping into a bouillabaisse laced with cilantro.
So now for my own reading list. I call it "The Careful Old Adventist’s Great Book List." It includes the One Greatest Book Ever Written, the Bible (especially the New Testament, especially John, and I like Paul and Isaiah and his hills clapping their hands; Hemingway admired the KJV for style, not message), E.B. White, E. G. White (prime pick, Steps to Christ), the books and essays of C.S. Lewis (skip the sci-pious-fiction), and columns by Peggy Noonan. And Peanuts.
As my next contribution to the texture of this piece, let me add to the exhortation just to go read a book: Go write a book! If passive watching can't rev up your brain as much as active reading does, isn't actively writing an even stronger brain boost? Peggy obviously thinks so. And aren’t we glad she does?
So much for reading. May I suggest that you don’t just sit there reading, or writing, drop that book, or keyboard – I’m talking to Peggy and myself, -- and go exercise, any kind of exercise. Exercise deeply. It’s at least as healthy as any reading, even carefully selected reading, better for your spine and eyes, maybe better against Alzheimer’s, the truly dreaded shallows.
Rewritten Wednesday, November 23, 2016
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