Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Before the Blog

It occurs to me that I should explain a lacuna in my reading lists. After posting information recently about my third ten-year reading plan, I realized that a person always talking about giving himself a liberal education through great books should explain why certain classics are missing. The basic answer is that I have read a lot of the books or authors you might have expected to see on a list like mine, and don't feel the urge to plan on reading them again.

I'll start with some Americans. Where are Cooper, Hawthorne, Irving, Poe, Dickinson, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, London, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and Frank Norris? Well, partly they're in my head: I've read them before. I've read "Young Goodman Brown" and The House of the Seven Gables; I've read The Scarlet Letter, and since I didn't read it for school, I enjoyed it. (My favorite Hawthorne story: "The Artist of the Beautiful.") I am a man who likes to read, so I once was a boy who liked to read, and therefore I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; I've read them multiple times. My favorite other Twain book is Life on the Mississippi, and the best Twain essays are "The Awful German Language" (one of the funniest things ever written) and "The Literary Sins of Fennimore Cooper." Oh, and I've read Cooper; you have to show him a lot of grace and love the sinner while hating the sin. I read Call of the Wild when I was a kid and then grew up and realized it wasn't a kid's book. I've read Sound and the Fury and Farewell to Arms and Gatsby and Babbitt. I'll definitely get back to some of these authors; they just don't have to be on my list for further self-improvement. I am eagerly anticipating rereading one forgotten American classic, though: Frank Norris's The Octopus. For all Norris's fame as a "naturalist" author, this novel includes at least one possibly paranormal event and a very satisfying moment of cosmic justice. I can't explain why this entertaining and thought-provoking book has never been adapted for the screen; with its soap-like drama of families and capitalism, it's a wonder no network has made a miniseries out of it.

I was going to talk a little about Hobbes and say that reading Leviathan is like walking through a half-constructed building made of square, smooth stone blocks: everything is a too square and simple to represent reality, and a little shove could knock the whole thing over. Then I was going to compare my Hobbesian architecture to the gothic cathedral of Aquinas, with his overwhelming repetition of figures, alike in basic shape but endlessly varied in detail. I was going to say all this, but then I remembered that I actually put Hobbes on the current plan that this blog records and even enjoyed him more the second time than I thought I would. So I will leave it all for someone else to say.

Machiavelli: I thought the Prince would recommend underhanded plotting, but reading it showed me that the book is more about doing right for pragmatic reasons. That premise sounds immoral only if doing-what's-right and doing-what-works are distinct; since I don't think they necessarily oppose one another, I actually found the book a surprising new defense of the Good.

Smith: For various reasons, basic ideas usually have much more impact on me when I read them from the source, and the pattern was never more true than with Adam Smith. Before reading his book, I already knew that Smith likened the free market to an invisible hand nudging society toward good. I don't remember any details about The Wealth of Nations other than that invisible hand, but after reading Smith's account of it, the image quit being a dry chalk outline on a classroom blackboard and became vivid and powerful in my mind. In honor of the holiday today, I'll say that the hand in my original view was as stiff and laughable as The Crawling Hand, while the three-dimensional picture I got from reading Smith himself had the sophistication of The Beast with Five Fingers.

Marx: I know entire countries and English departments base their policies on Marx's system, but its fatal flaw seems to me to come on page 1 of Capital. Marx says a thing's value comes from the labor that goes into producing it, whereas I say the value of a thing lies in the eye of a person who wants it. You can try all day to sell me your peanut slicer by telling me how much work and time you invested in it, and I still won't want it. Marx is a moving, effective writer when he appeals to the reader's humanity; no profit can justify the way some owners and faceless corporations have treated workers, and no author can make a reader sense this moral lesson better than Karl Marx. But his economic mathematics is worthless, no matter how much time he put into it.

Freud: The founder of psychoanalysis writes endlessly interesting and challenging prose. (The best place to start with Freud: Civilization and its Discontents.) His discovery of the power of the talking cure deserves nothing but praise and thanks. His observation that seemingly disconnected actions, words, and thoughts hang on a unifying thread makes sense of a lot of human mysteries. But his insistence that the common thread is always sex tells us more about the doctor's mind than the patient's.

I’ll provide some more unfairly short summaries of classic authors in a future post. Right now, I’m expecting princesses and ghouls and Spider-man to come to my door, and I have to get ready.

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