I stumbled upon a good brisk read the other day by David Mamet in the genre, How I finally saw the light and stopped being a benighted leftist. The title is The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture (Sentinel, 2011). Here is a taste, from a footnote on p. 10:
*The Left and the Right, I saw, differ not about programs, but about goals -- the goal of the Left is a government-run country and that of the Right the freedom of the individual from Government. These goals are difficult to reconcile, as the Left cannot be brought to actually state its intentions, nor to honestly evaluate the results of its actions.
In his second sentence, Mamet makes two extremely important points. The first is that leftists employ a stealth strategy. They are not open about their ultimate goals. The gun-grabbers among them, for example, will rarely state openly that one of their goals is the banning of the private ownership of handguns. They know full well that an open espousal of their totalitarian agenda would incite the opposition of the 'tea-baggers' as they derisively call Tea Party members as well as that of the rest of the rubes of fly-over country. The second point it that leftists, as adherents of a quasi-religion, are committed to its nostrums whether or not they work out in reality. Are the public schools better than they were in '65? Obviously not. So throw more money at them while harrassing homeschoolers and blocking voucher programs.
But I must quibble with Mamet's first sentence. It is simply not the case that the goal of the Right is freedom of the individual from government. That is a goal of anarchists, but conservatism is twice-removed from anarchism. For between anarchism and conservatism lies libertarianism. Conservatives are law and order types. They believe in a strong national defense. They want the nation's borders to be secure. All of this requires local, state, and Federal government.
When leftists say as they repeatedly do that conservatives are anti-government, that is a lie and they know it. It is a mistake for Mamet to give aid and comfort to this lie. Conservatives are for limited government. It takes no great logical acumen to see that if one is for limited government, then one is for government. And even a liberal should be able to understand that it is a false alternative to suppose that the choice is between no government and totalitarian government.
Christopher Hitchens' NYT review of Mamet begins thusly: "This is an extraordinarily irritating book, written by one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason."
And as I read more of it, I am becoming irritated myself. Consider his answers to the questions put to him in an interview. The questions are serious, but he returns frivolous answers, e.g.:
You also wrote about hating “every wasted, hard-earned cent I spent in taxes.” What cent did you hate the most? All of them gall me the most.
Only a lunatic extremist would think every cent paid in taxes was wasted. And surely no conservative would maintain such an absurd position.
We don't need more extremists. Contemporary liberalism is a set of extreme positions. The answer, however, is not some opposite form of extremism. I believe it was Goethe who said that no one is more hostile to a position than one who once espoused it but has come to reject it. I paraphrase.
In partial answer to a reader's query, here are some good books about Communism. These are 'second-tier' books. First read Whittaker Chambers, Witness; Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism (three vols.); Cszelaw Milosz, The Captive Mind. What follows is a 1 August 2004 post updated and expanded from my first weblog.
I like reading books by and about Communists and former Communists. One reason is that I think it will give me some insight into the related phenomenon of Islamism, which would not be badly described as the Communism of the 21st century. Here are some out-of-the-way titles I have dug up recently. I have found them both enlightening and entertaining. Being ‘fair and balanced,’ as everyone knows, I read materials both sympathetic and hostile to Communism.
Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism (New York: Basic Books, 1977). Consists of sympathetic biographical sketches of numerous American communists. A very enjoyable read for those who enjoy psychology and biography.
Aileen Kraditor, “Jimmy Higgins”: The Mental World of the American Rank-and-File Communist, 1930-1958 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988). An academic sociological study by a former commie, and Boston University professor “written from a conservative standpoint.” (Preface) Strongly recommended, and of course ignored by leftists. Note that I didn’t say,‘suppressed by leftists,’ because that is the silly way they talk. To ignore something is not to suppress it, any more than to refuse to sponsor or subsidize something is to censor it. Especially egregious is the use of 'voter suppression' by leftists to refer to common sense polling place requirements such as government-issued photo ID.
Bella V. Dodd, School of Darkness (New York: P. J. Kennedy, 1954) Bella Dodd’s idealism swept her up into the Communist Party, as did Whittaker Chambers' and and the idealism of so many of the best and brightest of their generation. But after wasting years of her life in the CPUSA, it spit her out. Disillusioned, she turned to Catholicism, taking instruction from none other than Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in New York City. She had come to the conclusion that the brotherhood of man is possible only under the fatherhood of God. Her book is available on-line here.
Ron Radosh, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left, Encounter, 2001. There are some juicy revelations about Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, on pp. 39-40. But I am too lazy to type them up. But I'm not too lazy to link to this great PP & M tune.
This is a really good collection of state-of-the-art essays that comes at the right time in my philosophical development. I thank Ed Feser, editor and contributor, for sending me a complimentary copy. (I didn't ask for one, and you shouldn't either.)
Would you please start a series of posts akin to the "Saturday Night at the Oldies" except about books? A few books presented every week, each with a one sentence description, from as wide a thematic range as possible -- fiction, history, philosophy, biography and others. I would profit from it immensely, as would many others.
An excellent idea. So, in keeping with my masthead motto "Study everything," here are (some of) my recent reads. Disclaimer: Much of what follows are quick bloggity-blog remarks scribbled mainly for my own use. They are not intended as balanced reviews.
1. Hugh J. McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God (Indiana University Press, 2012).
I am finishing a review article about this book for American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. Three sentences from the introduction: "Hugh McCann is an old pro in action theory and the philosophy of religion whose expertise is well-displayed in the eleven chapters of his magisterial Creation and the Sovereignty of God. [. . .] McCann’s central conviction is that God is absolutely sovereign, so much so that God is not only sovereign over the natural order, but also over the moral order, the conceptual order, and the divine nature itself. [. . .] The book can be summed up by saying that it is a detailed elaboration in all major areas of the consequences of the idea that God is absolutely sovereign and thus unlimited in knowledge and power.
2. Greg Bellow, Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir (Bloomsbury 2013). Held my attention to the end. A son comes to grips with his relation to his famous conservative father. I found the son's uncritical liberalism annoying in places.
3. Colin McGinn, Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry (Blackwell, 1993). One-sentence summary: The central problems of philosophy have naturalistic solutions, but we are prevented by our cognitive architecture from ever knowing them. Here is Peter van Inwagen's review. (A tip of the hat to sometime MavPhil commenter, Andrew Bailey, for making PvI materals available online.)
4. Marcia Clark (with Teresa Carpenter), Without a Doubt (Viking, 1997). Marcia Clark was the lead prosecutor in the ill-starred O.J. Simpson trial. Simpson was accused of first-degree murder in the brutal deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, but acquitted. Clark's side of the story. I'm at p. 159 of 486 pp.
5. Dominick Dunne, Another City, Not My Own: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (Crown, 1997). Another book about the Trial of the Century as Dunne calls it (the Simpson murder trial) by the late novelist, socialite, reporter, and gossip. Aficionados of that vast, sprawling monstrosity know as the City of the Angels will find this and the previous title of interest. I'm from there, so that helps explain my interest.
6. Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973), Ethics, Value, and Reality: Selected Papers of Aurel Kolnai (Hackett, 1978). I thank my young friend Kid Nemesis for bringing Kolnai's work to my attention. One of the ten papers collected here is Kolnai's seminal "Forgiveness" (orig. in Proc. Arist. Soc. 1973-74). David Wiggins and Bernard Williams co-author a useful introduction to Kolnai's life and work.
7. Josef Pieper, Hope and History: Five Salzburg Lectures, tr. D. Kipp (Ignatius, 1994, orig. publ. as Hoffnung und Geschichte by Koesel-Verlag in 1967). The German Thomist meditates on hope with the help of Kant, Teilhard de Chardin, Franz Kafka, and the Marxist Ernst Bloch. Pieper very politely criticizes Bloch's Marxist idiocies which cumlinate in the simultaneously outrageous and hilarious Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem!
8. Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Eerdman's 2004). A study of themes from the work of a Catholic novelist in the fundamentalist South.
9. Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (W. W. Norton 2013). Is Dennett a philosopher or a pseudo-philosopher? He is undoubtedly brilliant, as brilliant as he is sophistical, snarky, and unserious. I find the man and his works repellent. But Colin McGinn, atheist, naturalist, and apparently also a liberal, I find simpatico. McGinn is a real philosopher! You want to know my criteria? Some other time. My Dennett drubbings are here.
Correction. Monterey Tom correctly points out that " the title 'Trial of the Century' should go either to the Hiss Case or the Rosenberg case, both of which had social and political ramifications far beyond the mere sensationalism of the Simpson fiasco. The only reason why so few college graduates, even graduate students specializing in national security affairs, are familiar with the Hiss and Rosenberg cases is that both trials disprove one of the essential tenets of PC, namely that there never were any Communists in the first place. Of course, only a system as twisted as PC could require people to believe at the same time that while there never were any Communists they were good people."
We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us; these things cannot be done without much reading. But much and little are opposites only in the same domain. . . [M]uch is necessary in the absolute sense, because the work to be done is vast; but little, relatively to the deluge of writing that . . . floods our libraries and our minds nowadays.
[. . .]
What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort. The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.
[. . .]
The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention. This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow point for point the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words, developments, chapters, volumes.
[. . .]
[N]ever read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.
A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods ( Catholic University Press, 1998), pp. 145 - 149.
I agree with the above, except for the extreme statement, "Never read when you can reflect."
Mortimer Adler, in How to Read a Book, pointed out that being widely-read does not mean one is well-read. I've enjoyed reading some of your old posts about reading and studying, so I wanted to know your opinion on this matter.
Should I aim to read a lot of books? Or is it better to read and reread a few good books? I know some people say one should read widely but read good books deeply. But I've found that a hard balance to maintain. For example, deeply reading an 800-page selection of Aquinas's writings several times would consume almost all of my reading for the next 1-2 months. Also, it's hard for me to switch gears, you might say. If I'm accustomed to reading most of my books through quickly without pausing much to think, then I easily fall into that mode of reading when I'm trying to read deeply.
I imagine you would have some interesting thoughts on this topic, since you have a few decades of reading behind you. Which type of reading benefited you the most?If you could go back and change what you read and how you read during your decades of scholarship, what would you change?
Although desultory reading is enjoyable, it is best to have a plan. Pick one or a small number of topics that strike you as interesting and important and focus on them. I distinguish between bed reading and desk reading. Such lighter reading as biography and history can be done in bed, but hard-core materials require a desk and such other accessories as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks, a cup of coffee, a fine cigar . . . .
If you read books of lasting value, you ought to study what you read, and if you study, you ought to take notes. And if you take notes, you owe it to yourself to assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. What is the point of studious reading if not to evaluate critically what you read, assimilating the good while rejecting the bad? The forming of the mind is the name of the game. This won't occur from passive reading, but only by an active engagement with the material. The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it. Here is where blogging can be useful. Since blog posts are made public, your self-respect will give you an incentive to work at saying something intelligent.
To the foregoing, I would add, first of all, the magnificent observation of Schopenhauer: "Forever reading, never read." If you want to be read, then you must write. And even if you don't want to be read, you must write -- for the reason supplied in the preceding paragraph.
Now on to your questions.
Widely-read or well-read? You can be both. And you should be both. Switching gears can be difficult, but it can be done.
As for time that could have been better spent, I do not regret reading vast quantities of Continental philosophy, but some of the time spent on the more extreme representatives of that tradition, such as Derrida, was time wasted.
Re-reading these remarks, I realize they are rather trite. But they may be of some use nonetheless.
Robert Samuelson comments on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 and finds some grounds for a measure of optimism. Conclusion:
America's distinctive beliefs and values are fading, says Murray. Maybe. But our history is that the bedrock values -- the belief in freedom, faith in the individual, self-reliance, a moralism rooted in religion -- endure against all odds. They've survived depressions, waves of immigration, wars and political scandals.
There is such a thing as the American character and, though not immutable, it is durable. In 2011, only 36 percent of Americans believed that "success in life is determined by outside forces," reports the Pew Global Attitudes survey. In France and Germany, the responses were 57 and 72 percent, respectively. America is different, even exceptional, and it is likely to stay that way.