We don’t burn the great books anymore. We don’t have to. No one reads them anyway.
The Nazis burned books. Maoists forbade everyone to read anything but the thoughts of Chairman Mao. We have done them one better: we make the great books available but tell people not to read them. So much for the free exchange of ideas.
It’s a totalitarian mindset, bent on the suppression of serious thinking.
Robert Maynard Hutchins was prescient when he wrote, more than six decades ago:
To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations.
Hutchins wrote these words in his introduction to a fifty-four volume set of books called: Great Books of the Western World. It was published by the Encyclopedia Brittannica and sold door-to-door. With a starting price of $298—sixty years ago—it sold more than a million sets.
Writing in The American Spectator Daniel Flynn bemoans the fact that people no longer read. Surely, they no longer read the great books. In many cases they no longer read books at all.
According the Bureau of Labor, Americans spend about fifteen minutes a day reading. They spend about two-and-a-half hours a weekday watching television and nearly an hour playing games or messing about on the computer. The feds haven’t yet created a separate category for taking selfies or obtaining new tattoos, but anecdotal evidence suggests that their popularity exceeds reading, too.
At the least, we need to question this. How much of the time spent messing around on a computer involves reading newspapers, blogs and Facebook posts. It’s not all videogames.
True enough, Flynn notes, libraries give books away for free. Then again, so does Amazon. Most of works that were included in the Great Books are available for free on Amazon. If not on Amazon, through easily accessible pdf versions.
So, it does not feel quite right to blame the decline of reading, such as it might be, on gadgets. Nor does it feel quite right to slide effortlessly, as Flynn does, from the Great Books to Rob Sheffield’s Talking to Girls about Duran Duran.
Flynn would have a better argument if he noted that most people used to read and study the great books in high school and college. One does not, in normal circumstances, sit down willingly to peruse a volume of Leibniz. One has to be taught how to read such books.
No one is going to learn how to read Confucius on his own. Guided by a capable teacher, we are able to discover what the greatest minds of our civilization are trying to tell us.
Agree or disagree, you will improve your ability to think if you study the way the greatest thinkers went about the task.
Nietzsche once said that we learn more from the errors of great minds than we do from the truths of lesser minds. If he were alive today he would have had to modify his adage: we learn more from the errors of great minds than we do from the errors of self-important mediocrities.
It is not the fault of the gadgets. Let’s blame it on an educational establishment that no longer believes in the Great Books. Let’s blame it on teachers who would not know how to teach many of these books anyway.
Too often today, when educators bring the great books to the attention of students they want to show how they have promoted the hegemony of white males.
At best, today’s academics show students how to deconstruct the texts, find out signs of patriarchal attitudes and dismiss the enterprise as part of the vast conspiracy called Western Civilization.
Many years ago, when deconstruction was first gaining a foothold in the American academy, a professor friend explained to me that he did not have to read Plato’s works anymore because Derrida had deconstructed them.
People did not stop reading the Great Books because of Amazon. They did not stop reading philosophy because of Facebook. They stopped because their teachers taught them that they did not need to read such things. They stopped because their teachers taught them that the Great Books were part of a vast conspiracy to pollute their minds with logocentric, phallocentric, patriarchal, capitalistic, imperialist, colonialist thought.
It’s not the same as book burning, but, in the end it’s a more effective way to kill free inquiry and intellectual achievement.