Friday, October 31, 2008

Books!

Anonymous - that infinite font of both wisdom and folly - once said that "A library is a hospital for the mind."

How true. Books, at least the right sort, have the potential to keep us sane by giving our lives a larger context than our puny problems and preoccupations. They open for us other worlds which then enrich our own.

Good books also have the potential to keep us humble. It is the kind of humility which recognizes that I am not at the centre of things. As we commune with the great minds and heroes of the past, we are continually reminded of our own finiteness and frailty by contrast. But we are also given hope because we see that the great heroes and minds of the past struggled with the very types of things that we face.

Arthur Quiller Cooch (picture on right), the editor of that excellent tome The Oxford Book of English Verse, taught that the more educated we are the more humble we should be because we know how much we don’t know. He argued that truly educated people do not take themselves too seriously yet they know when serious things ought to be taken seriously. As Cooch put it, "The more deeply a man explores his subject, the further he will be led to consider the views of those who have studied and thought about it before him. The more conscious he will feel of his own fallibility and the fog of ignorance encompassing us all. He will read on and on and a growing modesty will deter him from seeking such positive assertions as are made by hastier less informed men.”

Books also help us transcend the petty preoccupations of our own age, as C.S. Lewis explains in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books.” When we explore our subjects and read the great authors of Western civilization, we begin to imbibe a worldview that is neither liberal nor conservative. Being liberal or being conservative are simply the effects of not having all of history to draw upon. Conservatives who dogmatically lock into imitating how things were done in the last two hundred years, or liberals who dogmatically lock into imitating how things were done in the last two hundred minutes, are two sides of the same coin. The opposite of both these wrong approaches is a confessional approach which relies on the whole of time, using the lens of what is good, right, true and beautiful throughout all of history (including recent history) as the standard of what things should be aspired to. By reading widely, or by reading the works of people who are widely read (which is often the best I can do), we gain a sense of perspective, releasing one from the bondage of present fades. Chesterton had something like this in mind when he wrote that,

"The first use of good literature, is that it prevents a man from being merely modern. To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one's earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to be old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns. Literature, classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone."

I have not always availed myself of my library as I should. One of my current goals is to read more and write less. God-willing, this blog should reflect that by having more reviews and less ramblings.


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