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Adventures in Generalization

To Generalize is to be an Idiot. — William Blake


In a brief essay about how people respond to the destruction of books, Leah Price writes,

Afghans rioted after learning that NATO soldiers were burning copies of the Koran at a garbage dump, as Muslims strongly believe that sacred texts must be laid to rest with the same reverence as dead bodies. One closely guarded “book cemetery” in the mountains of Pakistan contains seventy thousand damaged copies of the Koran. Muslims thus stand near the middle of the spectrum, with Jews, who protect not just sacred texts but all written paper from defilement by laying them in a special resting place called a geniza, on one end, and Christians, who for centuries have happily torn pages from secular books for use as toilet paper, on the other.

So, according to Price, Jews — not some Jews or many Jews or most Jews, but just Jews, taken as a whole, Jews tout court — revere all written matter, while Christians — not some Christians or many Christians or most Christians, but just Christians — “happily” destroy “secular books.” (The comments about Muslims here are ambiguous and evasive — What do Muslims do with secular books? What do they do with other religions’ sacred texts? — so we’ll set those aside.)

Anyone who knows even the tiniest bit about the history of books knows how ridiculous Price’s smear on Christians is — knows how many “secular” books, especially from the ancient world, owe their very survival to Christian readers. You could start with Basil the Great’s commendation of Greek literature, especially the Odyssey, or with Augustine’s love of the philosophers he called the Platonists, or Jerome’s fear that if he were called before the Lord and charged with being a Ciceronian rather than a Christian he would have to plead guilty, or the monastic preservation of many ancient pagan texts, or Thomas Aquinas’s adoration of Aristotle, whom he called The Philosopher — really, you could start almost anywhere in Christian history. Some Christians have burned pagan books; some have revered them. How you would decide which position has been more common throughout history I couldn’t begin to say. How would you amass and weigh evidence for such an inquiry? (Still less could I imagine figuring how how to support the larger comparative claim Price is making, according to which Jews are uniformly Good, Christians are uniformly Bad, and Muslims are In Between.)

But to consider evidence would be to give Price’s claim more reflection that it deserves. The attention I have called merely to the grammar of her sentence is sufficient to show that the statement won’t bear even a moment’s scrutiny. So the really intresting question is this: Why would an intelligent, highly educated person (Price is a professor at Harvard) write something so silly?

It seems likely that that Price never noticed that the claim won’t bear scrutiny because she had given it no scrutiny herself and didn’t suspect that anyone who read her essay would either. That is, I suspect — I can only guess — that Price’s environment is one in which the narrow-minded anti-intellectualism of Christianity is just part of the epistemic furniture, one of those things that Everyone Knows, in precisely the same way that the white people I grew up among simply knew that Negroes were shiftless and lazy. I find two things especially noteworthy about these things that Everyone Knows: first, they tend to be really nasty-minded; and second, they tend to be equally tidy-minded — that is, they make the world a neat, simple place in which there are ever so many people one needn’t take seriously, or treat with anything other than immediately reflexive contempt, because one knows in advance of any particular encounter exactly what they’re like.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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