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TAC Bookshelf: Rediscovering the Classics Under Quarantine

Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.
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James Bovard, TAC contributor: Thanks to coronavirus closings in most states, tens of millions of kids are at home for weeks or even the rest of the school year. This is an ideal opportunity to revive the natural love of reading that many young people have lost due to mind-deadening classroom regimes.

I lost my natural love of reading in high school in part because teachers turned books into unending drudgery. After my sophomore English teacher spent six weeks dissecting John Milton’s Paradise Lost, I wanted to cast every poet into hell. Then we spent another six weeks agonizing over Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a torturous exercise which made me want to drown all Danes and psychoanalysts. The 10 days a teacher spent tormenting the jumping frog of Calaveras County tragically delayed my ability to recognize Mark Twain as America’s greatest writer.

In the classroom, old books became mental castor oil forced down solely to excrete the right answers on exams. And it is even worse for the non-classics in the curriculum.

Most of the books students encounter in high school are approved of by bureaucrats who were appointed by politicians—two huge warning signs. How in hell did state superintendents of education become intellectual czars?

My mind slumbered until I began avidly reading on my own after graduating from high school. Stumbling upon Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, I found a writer whose voice and values resonated intensely. Thoreau championed a frugal lifestyle to open up vast swaths of free time—a trade-off that seemed wiser than the prevailing consumerism in American society. He declared, “The cost of a thing is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” His recipe for social encounters also fetched me: “I will give them a strong dose of myself.” I didn’t share his enthusiasm for growing beans but nobody is perfect.

Thoreau also revered the best old books: “What are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?” Around that time, a South African neighbor gave me a photocopy of the 1972 version of the University of Chicago Great Books List (page 350 of the linked text). That list sent me roaming the open shelves of a nearby university library and perusing one author after another.

Diving into Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s neighbor and friend, was a natural followup to Walden. Emerson’s essays and epigrams provided meteor showers of inspiration that helped me realize my own mental torpor. I was especially enthralled by lines such as “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself” and “In hard times, cultivate yourself. And you cannot lose your labor.” Emerson’s pithy insights into life and character more than compensated for his hogwash about the Oversoul and transcendentalism.

Emerson was a big fan of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French writer who pioneered the modern essay. Montaigne’s earthy style enthralled both my spirit and mind. He combined cheerfulness with skepticism, a welcome contrast to the religious persecutions ravaging France when he wrote. Montaigne’s blunt writings on sex, including humorous proverbs from his era, helped me recognize that humanity has been far more constant than many contemporary writers recognize. (Here is a better translation, well worth the $2.99 Kindle price).

That list contained plenty of philosophers who were damnably abstruse, but others were lucid and a joy to read. After reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, the classic text of Stoicism, I recognized I was too surly for my own good. Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary shook me out of my dogmatic slumbers on religion and half a dozen other subjects. Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil was the most piercing challenge I had seen to prevailing moral values. (Here is a free early translation of that book, though the Walter Kaufman translation is worth the price.)

History was the only subject at which I excelled in high school but my reading never included its greatest chroniclers. The Roman historian Tacitus vividly illustrated how power depraves; his warning that “the more laws, the less justice” is painfully relevant today. The first volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire helped me recognize that civilization is far more fragile than it appears. The first volumes of Thomas Macaulay’s History of England vivified how docility (“passive obedience”) paves the way for tyranny. Those authors illuminated vast sweeps of time—as opposed to contemporary historian-moles who often leave their readers as myopic as themselves. They also provided a stark contrast to the politically approved versions of history that public schools serve, which usually minimize the perils of political venality.

That list also led me to writers who combined comedy and penetration. Cervantes’ Don Quixote had me laughing so loudly that my roommates thought I should be committed. Moliere’s Tartuffe was a hilarious and unforgettable portrait of how hypocrites exploit gullible people to plunder far and wide. I savored many essays by Jonathan Swift, whose “A Modest Proposal” provided the format for the first satire I sold five years later to the New York Times (“Why Not Draft the Next Congress?”).

Unlike in classroom regimens, I only read what I enjoyed. I was thrilled to discover writers with magic wands that brought order out of the chaos around me and within my own head. If a book did not grab me by the shirt collar, I hustled on to other titles on the University of Chicago list. I’d be damned if I’d waste a week drilling in a dry hole like James Joyce’s Ulysses. That list provided a better a starting point than anything else I had found but it was neither infallible nor sacrosanct. And happily, most of the classics are available online for free.

At a time when millions of young folks have far more free time than expected, this is a golden opportunity to read books better than anything they’ve likely encountered in public schools. Maybe some long dead author will provide the pilot light sparks for intellectual awakening. But even if some old tome merely revives a lost love of reading, that could be an invaluable legacy of the coronavirus shutdown. From my own experience, I never knew that I was loitering in mental neutral until my mind shifted into a higher gear—thanks to those classics.