When I first noticed the decline in reading during the late sixties, I began asking my large introductory classes, and any other group of younger students to which I spoke, what books really count for them. Most are silent, puzzled by the question. The notion of books as companions is foreign to them. Justice Black with his tattered copy of the Constitution in his pocket at all times is not an example that would mean much to them. There is no printed word to which they look for counsel, inspiration, or joy.
What books really count for you, dear reader? Are there any books that you count as genuine companions, books that color the way you see the world and are always ready to hand as sure, steady guides? I'd be interested to know, if anyone happening to read this post would like to respond.
In my case, on reflection, there are four books to which I regularly return and that are instrumental in forming my vision of the world. They are, in no particular order:
1. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.
2. Concluding Unscientific Postscript by Soren Kierkegaard.
3. Collected Dialogs by Plato.
and, of course,
4. The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom.
What makes a book worthy of being a companion? I don't think it is anything you necessarily decide. You just find yourself, over the years, when confused or depressed, gravitating to the same few books over and over again. But what is it about those particular books that draws you to them? One feature seems to be a depth that is nearly inexhaustible. These are books you can open anywhere, read a few lines, probably lines you have read many times before, and yet find a new meaning to them that you had not noticed before. They are books that seem to be almost alive, growing with you as you mature. This post was inspired, for example, by flipping open The Closing of the American Mind in an idle moment and reading the beginning of the Chapter "Books."
They are also books loaded with offhand remarks of great insight. At the beginning of the chapter "Relationships", Bloom says the following:
Students these days are, in general, nice. I choose the word carefully. They are not particularly moral or noble. Such niceness is a facet of democratic character when times are good.
These sentences sum up the character of my generation and after, the very tail-end of the baby boom and the beginning of "Generation X", and beyond. Prosperity hides a multitude of sins. The demanding religion of our grandparents just doesn't seem to make much sense to us. Life is good, safe and relatively undemanding. Christianity is about salvation, but salvation from what? We see no need to be saved from a life of 40 hour work weeks, $75,000 a year salaries, four weeks vacation a year, and all the comforts a modern technological society can provide. The lesson I got from twelve years of Catholic education (mostly in the 1970's) was that being a Catholic meant being a "good guy", what Bloom calls "nice." Well, after high school, I took stock of myself and concluded that I was a pretty nice guy. So what did I need a weekly religious service for?
But there is a deep anxiety hidden in "nice", an anxiety I experienced but did not really understand until I read Bloom and Kierkegaard. It is hinted at in Bloom's comment that the current generation is neither moral nor noble. "Nice" is comfortable but it is flat, uninspiring, and ultimately boring. It is the "aesthetic life" as described by Kierkegaard. A truly human life, a life worthy of a man, must involve noble actions and moral depth. Thus, unlike prior generations, which needed to discover the reality of salvation, we need to discover the reality of sin. Only a life lived in the possibility of sin can one find depth beyond "nice."
The Closing of the American Mind is filled with little asides that can set one thinking for hours, and that can, by themselves, change your life. Our bookstores are filled with "self-help" books that are useless; the true self-help books are written by Bloom, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas.
One of the great benefits of books-as-companions is that they give you a perspective outside the parameters of contemporary culture. This is one of the meanings of freedom as understood by classical education, and that it took as its goal. Chesterton's Orthodoxy contains an entire, perhaps somewhat eccentric, worldview, but a worldview that seems increasingly sane the more one immerses oneself in it, and in comparison with which the ordinary secular worldview seems crazy. My unfavorable reaction to the Harry Potter books is largely based on my reading of Chesterton, especially the Chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" in Orthodoxy. When I need a dose of sanity, I always return to Orthodoxy.
Kierkegaard and Plato taught me how to think. I had read some philosophy, and taken a few courses in college, but it didn't mean anything to me until I read Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard taught me the meaning of subjectivity, and with it the world of philosophy and Plato opened up.