If You Want to Understand the Times We’re Living In, Read This
COMMENTARY: Sentence structure, done well, feeds logical thought. It organizes the flow of ideas. And logic in America in 2017 is a diminishing resource.
Reading matters. It trains the brain in a particular way. The printed word has two great advantages over a culture based on images: permanence (or at least stability) of the word and the mental discipline imposed by grammar.
Sentence structure, done well, feeds logical thought. It organizes the flow of ideas. And logic in America in 2017 is a diminishing resource. We live in an age of emotivism (according to Alasdair MacIntyre) and liquid modernity (per Zygmunt Bauman). The very last thing we need is more of either.
Our political structures depend on a literate public. So do our liberties. If we don’t read, our ability to think clearly and judge prudently suffers. We call “the humanities” the humanities for a very good reason. It’s because the accumulated wisdom expressed in literature, history and similar fields — overwhelmingly chronicled in print — makes us, well, more human.
During my time as editor in chief of the National Catholic Register (1978-93), I had a short list of readings (in addition to Scripture) that I suggested to every newbie who wanted to write for the paper. Call it a mental boot camp. In sequence, the titles were Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon; Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory; George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language; and C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
Why those texts and not others? Briefly put: Koestler’s novel is the great modern portrait of why a noble-seeming end can never justify evil means to achieve it. Greene’s novel is a study of the nature of real sanctity — the moral struggles of a sinful man who nonetheless becomes a saint. Orwell’s essay is the classic indictment of how political deceit corrupts language and thought. And Lewis’ book remains, even today, the finest simple work of Christian apologetics in English. Anyone who read these four titles, I believed, would have at least a rough idea of the Register’s intellectual framework at the time.
Note that two of the four titles above were fiction. That makes sense. Stories have power. They often tell more of the truth than the most meticulous social research. We’re formed by things that touch our hearts and souls, not just our reason.
Over the decades I’ve read The Power and the Glory eight times. And the final pages of Darkness at Noon have stayed in my memory since first reading them 46 years ago.
Last month, speaking in a seminar at the Napa Institute, I revisited the idea of a reading list. This time the goal was different, i.e., to suggest what we might read to better understand the culture now emerging around us — a culture that can often seem “post-Christian” and unfriendly to Catholic belief. The Church has plenty of good reading resources.
The bibliography of Archbishop Charles Chaput’s recent book, Strangers in a Strange Land — itself an engaging work — is a gold mine of reference articles and other excellent books to read. But everyone has his or her own list of favorite books. And no list is perfect.
In my own case, singling out a dozen or so “must-reads” from the printed herd is close to impossible. Anyone, for example, who hasn’t read Joseph Ratzinger’s radio talks from 1969-70, collected by Ignatius Press in Faith and the Future, or C.S. Lewis’ brilliant The Abolition of Man, or even Ernest Hemingway’s short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place should stop reading this column right now, run out and buy them.
Both of the above books are vital to seeing our present moment for what it is through Christian eyes. And Hemingway’s short story, precisely because of its brevity and absence of any faith, captures the spiritual crisis of our age.
But back to my Napa Institute list. The books I suggest to anyone who’ll listen these days goes like this:
C.S Lewis’ “Space Trilogy” — Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength — saw clearly (more than 70 years ago) the key moral issues of the scientific age and did it with the skill of a story-telling genius. That Hideous Strength is especially powerful. I’d also add J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story Leaf by Niggle — for no other reason than it’s a simple, beautiful and moving allegory of the afterlife.
Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals (original 1989 edition) surgically dismembers the intellectual blowhards who shaped the Enlightenment and its aftermath. Delicious.
Christopher Lasch’s final book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994) is a work of cultural prophecy. Easy to read; hard to forget. And Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly are classic (and often darkly funny) critiques of modern mass media and the technologies we now worship.
In publications, aside from the Register (of course!), First Things, New Atlantis, the Public Discourse, GetReligion and Crux websites and Ken Myers’ superb Mars Hill Audio Journal.
Writers/scholars to watch (or at least the ones I follow): R.R. (“Rusty”) Reno, Michael Hanby and Patrick Deneen, among others.
Jesus said the truth would make us free. He didn’t say it would make us comfortable. Likewise with the books and stories I suggest in this column. But what a gift God has given us in the printed word, and the fellowship we Christians have in sharing it.
Francis X. Maier is senior adviser and special assistant
to Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput.