Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The Magical Mental Exercise Called Reading
In 1942 my parents purchased a home in a picture-postcard suburban New Jersey community and the first improvement they made was to have bookshelves installed on the rear wall of the living room along with more in one corner. They had brought a lot of books with them and anticipated reading many more.
The living room was a library. An indelible memory of mine was of both parents reading. My father was a graduate of New York University, having worked his way through while attending night school. Mother occasionally lamented not having attended college, but Mother also taught in the adult school of the community for three decades and authored two books in addition to many magazine columns.
An authority on haute cuisine and wine, she garnered honors from the British and French Sommelier Societies, as well as from Germany. She was profiled in The New York Times. The word for a person like Mother is autodidact; a fancy way of saying self-taught.
Earlier and well into the 1930s through the 1950s Americans devoured books and often spent precious dollars to purchase sets of the Harvard Classics—we had them—and either the Encyclopedia Britannica or Americana—we had the latter. The Book of the Month Club was very successful as was a magazine called Reader’s Digest.
I was reminded of this by a very entertaining new book, “Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America”, authored by Daniel J. Flynn. The introduction begins with a reflection on popular culture, “Stupid is the new smart.”
This isn’t, however, just another lament about the sad state of present-day education or popular culture. Instead, it is a look back at America in the pre-World War Two era up to and beyond when television began to occupy the time many used to devote to reading books. Ironically, Flynn notes that television played a powerful role in popularizing several of the people he identifies as intellectual icons.
“For much of the twentieth century,” wrote Flynn, “there was a concerted effort among intellectuals to spread knowledge and wisdom far and wide. Correspondingly, many regular people took full advantage of the great educational effort. The idea was that America depended on having a well-rounded, educated citizenry.” This was not a new idea because from its earliest years Americans valued knowledge for its own sake.
“Twentieth-century America witnessed a democratization of education, unparalleled in human history,”says Flynn. I mentioned that my Mother taught gourmet cooking in adult schools. This was a phenomenon that began after World War Two. In addition to the GI bill that encouraged returning servicemen, mostly still young, to attend college, adult schools sprang up in communities as a way to quench the thirst for knowledge among the parents of those in college who, because of the Depression and the war, had not had the opportunity to acquire a higher level of education.
Common among the intellectual icons that Flynn identifies as having made learning popular was that all of them came from humble, often hardscrabble beginnings. They were not the children of wealth and privilege. They were people who knew what it meant to work for meager wages, but yearn for great achievement. All were denizens of local libraries and veracious readers. Of those who became members of the faculties of distinguished institutions, their roots gave them a unique advantage whether the topic was history, economics, or literature. They had lived in the real world.
The “blue collar intellectuals” included Will and Ariel Durant, co-authors of “The Story of Civilization” that included eleven-volumes by the time they were completed. Another was Mortimer Adler who authored “The Story of Philosophy” and, in 1940, “How to Read a Book” which became the second best-selling book of that year.
Milton Friedman transformed economics while teaching at the University of Chicago for thirty years starting in 1946. He would win a Nobel Prize. “Friedman understood that economics wasn’t merely about numbers. It was about people.” His book, “Capitalism and Freedom”, challenged many of the New Deal liberal policies when published in 1962. As Flynn put it, the book “highlighted the disconnect between the intentions of do-gooders and the atrocious results of their deeds.”
I can still recall reading Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer” some years after it was first published in 1951. Working as a longshoreman, a strike in 1946 gave Hoffer the time to begin writing the book and another in 1948 gave him the time to finish it. It has never gone out of print and it took the reclusive Hoffer from a modest life he greatly preferred to meeting with presidents. The book was about mass movements and was his response to the two worst of the last century, Communism and Nazism. His own lifetime of reading is reflected in this and other books he subsequently wrote.
Flynn ends with a look at Ray Bradbury, best remembered as a science-fiction writer, but like the others of a humble origin, beginning in Waukegan, Illinois in 1920. His books, “Fahrenheit 451”, “Something Wicked Comes This Way”, and “The Martian Chronicles” cemented his reputation. Flynn says that “the threat to the life of the mind comes not as much from people who burn books as from people who don’t read them.”
So, when you’re commuting to work, on a lunch break, or when a hundred or more television channels offer you nothing worth watching keep a book at hand. Some of them will become lifelong companions.
Editor’s note: To keep up with the latest in non-fiction and fiction, visit Caruba’s monthly report at http://www.bookviews.com/
© Alan Caruba, 2011