What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.
Over the past few days my wife and I have been painting my book room and boxing up books. A lot of books! Anyway, my wife, having superior organizing skills, and an app for that, scanned bar codes and marked boxes so it would be far easier to find a particular book later on. Of course, I slowed the progress. I would go along handing her book after book and then suddenly stop mid stream. I’d stare wistfully at a book and begin to thumb through it, rereading underlined passages, remembering the thoughts and feelings I’d had when I had first read it. I know, just pathetic. Looking at all these books I started wondering, just for a moment, what my love for books and reading over all these years had really done for me.
As I stood there wondering, of course, I reached for a book I’d read (about books and reading) that just happen—naturally—to be right in front of me. I opened it and the first passage I’d underlined in pencil read:
We turn to books in the hope of better understanding our selves and better engaging with the meaning of our experiences. Let me say, right off, that I believe a work of art is primarily concerned with the creation of beauty, whether through words, colors, shapes, sounds, or movements. But it is impossible to read serious novels, poetry, essays, and biographies without also growing convinced that they gradually enlarge our minds, refine our spirits, make us more sensitive and understanding. In this way, the humanities encourage the development of our own humanity. They are instruments of self-exploration.
I like the way Dirda worded the above passage. At best, all a love for books and reading can do is encourage the development of our own humanity. It’s up to each of us to allow that to happen. And that, my dear reader, is the project of a lifetime.
Over coffee early this morning I began reading Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Heck I’ve got at least two other books going, so why not I thought. Of course, the introduction of a book is critical, you have to keep the reader going, pulling their desire to know along. So here’s Meacham, in a rather simply way, introducing us to Jackson’s general proclivities:
Jackson was fond of well-cut clothes, racehorses, dueling, newspapers, gambling, whiskey, coffee, a pipe, pretty women, children, and good company.
So hey, what’s not to like about this guy already?…
Now here is some good news. In this age of digital dominance, it’s good to see that printed book sales are holding their own. That’s what PWC Global is reporting.
Initially, books downloaded and read on an Amazon Kindle or some other electronic device, when they became popular, seem to put a dent in printed book sales. This had some sad consequences for bookish store types like me. I think of Borders books. It closed down nationwide in 2011 and that really hurt because, at least in my area, Borders was the only real competitor to Barnes & Noble Booksellers. I actually liked Borders a little better—because it always seemed to have a better selection on hand, and a better coffee shop to boot. Of course now B&N is really the only bookish place, besides maybe a public library, I can go to enjoy browsing and indulging in a little bookish culture and being around my fellow bibilophiliacts.
I don’t currently have an Amazon Kindle or B&N Nook or any other digital book e-reader device (though I do have the Kindle app on my iPhone that I’ve never used). My wife actually bought me a Nook e-reader about 5 years ago but I never used it, so, being the professional ebayer she is, she sold it. Initially, I thought I could use an e-reader, but the allure of a physical book has a strong hold on me. I love the smell of a new hardcover book—preferably with deckled edges—and the tactile feel of the book, of turning the pages, and having the physical book on my bookshelf. For now, I’m an incurable preferrer of printed books. And so I book on, born back ceaselessly upon the bookstore aisles, browsing for another book.
This book is a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent—a reminder that periods of pubic dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable.
I am writing now not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does.
— Jon Meacham
I recently completed Jon Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. An instant New York Times bestseller, it is, for various reasons, a very timely book for these very challenging—sometimes soul crushing—and chaotic times. As a historian, Meacham takes a look at the past—from the American Civil War to the Civil Rights era—in order to provide an informed (more hopeful) perspective about the possible trajectory of our turbulent times. In some sense, Meacham’s book is mental therapy; it’s meant to talk you off that ledge.
Meacham looks at some of the great American social struggles—i.e. the civil war, rise of the Klan, women’s movement, the civil rights era, etc, etc,—and some of the prominent people who’ve shaped our nation’s slow march toward a more (though not) perfect union. He focuses mostly on Presidents who, while not perfect, usually (until recently) used their office to lead, to unite and heal, not to divide and humiliate, Americans. With that said, Meacham’s goal is to also remind us that “the struggle is real,” that tumultuous times are more the rule than the exception, and that we must participate in our democracy if we expect hope to prevail over fear. He reminds us that the soul of America is no different than the soul of an individual. It’s a battleground of light and darkness, of hope and fear, of order and chaos. “Our fate is contingent upon which element—that of hope or that of fear—emerges triumphant.” What we pray for, and what our history suggests, is that hope will prevail over fear given enough time, visionary leadership, and activism by the people. Visionary and ethical leaders, as if we need reminding, aren’t guaranteed, but a free people who are hopeful and determined, can prevail over the forces of darkness, fear, and reaction.
Also, for those, like me, who collect quotes, I should note, that besides being a great read, Meacham’s book is worth having just for the quotes alone. The book is littered with great quotes, some I’d never seen before, by prominent people in our history.
Here is a sampling:
“Duty” is the operative word in the following quote. Duty requires one to subordinate one’s personal interests to those of the greater good, the nation, the law. Governing as if these two interests seem to always conveniently sync, is often called “corruption.”
In a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people. — Thomas Jefferson, 1810
I’d never seen follwing one before, but it’s a damn good one, and without a doubt from my experience a rock solid truth:
Now, look, I happen to know a little about leadership. I’ve had to work with a lot of nations, for that matter, at odds with each other. And I tell you this: you do not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it’s usually called ‘assault’ — not ‘leadership.’ . . . I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion—and conciliation—and education—and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know—or believe in—or will practice. — Dwight D. Eisenhower
And wow, the following presents a honest sense of humility and the awareness of the responsibilities of power that seem almost devoid in our current President.
Well, I have been President for a year and a quarter, and whatever the future many hold I think I may say that during that year and a quarter I have been a s successful as I had any right to hope or expect. Of course political life in a position such as this one long strain on the temper, one long acceptance of the second best, one long experiment of checking one’s impulses with an iron hand and learning to subordinate one’s own desires to what some hundreds of associates can be forced or cajoled or lead into desiring. Every day, almost every hour, I have to decide very big as well as very little questions, and in almost each of them I must determine just how far it is safe to go in forcing others to accept my views and standards and just how far I must subordinate what I deem expedient, and indeed occasionally what I deem morally desirable, to what it is possible under the given conditions to achieve. . . . Often when dealing with some puzzling affair I find myself thinking what Lincoln would have done. It has been very wearing, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it, for it is fine to feel one’s hand guiding great machinery, with at least the purpose, and I hope the effect, of guiding it for the best interests of the nation as a whole. — Theodore Roosevelt
And here the great transcendentalist nails it. This quote says what the bigger, more challenging, issue really is for America right now:
The form of government which prevails is the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it. — Waldo Emerson . . . Amen to that!