Home/Prufrock/Why Books Remain, Overrated Wittgenstein, and the End of Christian Europe

Why Books Remain, Overrated Wittgenstein, and the End of Christian Europe

Books have been declared dead since the nineteenth century. They’re still with us and will be for the foreseeable future: “In 1835, Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin declared that ‘the newspaper is killing the book, as the book killed architecture.’ Gautier was one-upping Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which depicted an archdeacon worrying that the book would kill the cathedral and a bookseller complaining that newfangled printing presses were killing scribes’ trade. This nineteenth-century historical novel is set a quarter century after Gutenberg’s first Bible, when a thriving industry of manuscript-on-demand was forced to readjust. In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another: the rise of the podcast makes clear that video didn’t doom audio any more than radio ended reading. Yet in 1913, a journalist interviewing Thomas Edison on the future of motion pictures recounted the inventor declaring confidently that ‘books … will soon be obsolete in the public schools.’ By 1927 a librarian could observe that ‘pessimistic defenders of the book … are wont to contrast the actual process of reading with the lazy and passive contemplation of the screen or listening to wireless, and to prophecy the death of the book.’ And in 1966, Marshall McLuhan stuck books into a list of outdated antiques: ‘clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs—all are obsolete.’”

Speaking of books, do you want your kids to read more? Read more yourself.

In other news: Wittgenstein is overrated: “When he first met Wittgenstein, Russell called him ‘the most perfect example I have ever known of genius,’ despite or perhaps because he couldn’t understand what young Ludwig was saying. Writing to his lover Ottoline Morrell in 1913 about Wittgenstein’s attack on one of his logical doctrines, Russell confessed: ‘I couldn’t understand his objection—in fact he was very inarticulate—but I felt in my bones that he must be right.’ He added: ‘I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy.’ That Wittgenstein’s mysterious charisma disabled a philosopher and logician as brilliant as Russell was among the first of its baleful effects, and Russell did in fact largely abandon logic at that moment. For a while, instead, he concentrated on spreading the Wittgenstein miasma, and his admiration turned Wittgenstein into an intellectual superstar. Ever since, Wittgenstein has been more of a cult than an argument, an irrationalist movement in a supposedly rational discipline. Like Russell, Wittgenstein’s followers know he is right; the only difficulty is knowing what he meant.”

The end of a Christian Europe: “This is not to say that there will be no one in Europe in 50 years’ time who prays or attends the Eucharist. It is, however, to recognise that in the next hundred years, the majority of practising Christians will live in Asia, Africa and perhaps South America, and in its strange way, perhaps the United States; whereas Europe will be ever more secular. “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith!” proclaimed Hilaire Belloc only two generations ago, and in the intervening years, readers of T.S. Eliot—The Idea of a Christian Society—or Jacques Maritain —L’Homme et l’Etat—might have been led to hope that the forces of secularism would not necessarily triumph . . . Paradoxically, today, it is the Muslims, on the whole, who keep alive what used to be Christian values in Europe—family virtue, and dread of usury.”

Why we need Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom today: “This month, Road to Serfdom celebrates its 75th anniversary. Dedicated “to the socialists of all parties,” over 350,000 copies were sold from its release in 1944 through 2007, and it reached Amazon’s bestseller rankings again at the height of the Tea Party movement in 2010. The shorter Reader’s Digest version was handed out by the millions and made Hayek an international phenom overnight. While prohibited even in West Germany up until 1947 for its anti-Soviet leanings, the book has been most successful in the U.S. In an age when conservatism is in many ways in disarray, there is no better time than now to return to The Road to Serfdom and see how it still resonates.”

Richard Wagner’s accomplishment: “Wagner set off to merge Shakespearean flesh-and-blood characters with Beethovenian orchestral expressivity – and a whole lot more. If Beethoven had called himself a ‘tone poet’, Wagner aspired to be a poet in the largest sense: a total artist creating drama out of all human art forms, from poetry and music to painting and architecture.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New York Times, Katherine Rosman surveys the world of private writing workshops for aspiring essayists:

“A boom in first-person essays of love, heartbreak and transcendence — including, yes, the popular Times column Modern Love, and amplified by the ease of spilling one’s guts online — has helped support a mini-industry for confessional writing seminars.

“For some 20 years, Joyce Maynard, the author of books including the memoir At Home in the World and the novel Labor Day, has hosted an eight-day seminar in the volcano-surrounded Mayan village of San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala, where both published and aspiring writers develop work.

“The cost is about $3,000 for what, according to the marketing copy, sounds a lot cushier than the proverbial garret: ‘Renowned chef Henry Lehr and a welcoming staff nurture you with over-the-top amazing food and massages, leaving you free to think only about your story.’

“Dani Shapiro, the author of the memoirs Inheritance and Devotion, hosts a two-day $3,500 retreat in Salisbury, Conn., that offers skill training, vocational advice and the sort of emotional calmness that few professional writers would describe as part of the job.

“‘We will write,’ her website says. ‘We’ll discuss the writing life. We will share our work and learn. We will revise. We will enjoy inspiration, camaraderie and quiet.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Schloss Schönbühel

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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