The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 19, 2018

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The Life of the Mind
James V. Schall, S.J. - 04/04/08

Nothing is more disconcerting, it seems to me, than to enter a home or an apartment in which there are no books and no place for books, no sign that a book has ever been there. It always seems like a kind of desecration to me, even though I am perfectly aware that bookless people can also be saved, even that they often have much practical wisdom, something Aristotle himself recognized. I know that there are libraries from which we can borrow for a time a book we may not own. We are blessed to live in a time of relatively cheap books. Ultimately, no doubt, the important thing is what is in our head, not what is on a printed page on our shelves, even when they contain our own books. Nor do we have to replicate the New York City Public Library in our own homes. Still, most of us would benefit from having at least a couple hundred books, probably more, surrounding us. I am sure that by judicious use of sales and used-book and online stores, anyone can gather together a very respectable basic library, probably for less than a thousand dollars. With a little enterprise, one can find in a used bookstore or online the Basic Works of Aristotle or the Lives of Plutarch for less than twenty dollars. When stretched out over time and compared, say, to the cumulative price of supplies for a heavy smoker, or a week’s stay in Paris or Tokyo, or a season ticket to one’s favorite NFL team, the cost of books is not too bad. My point is merely that whether or not we have good books around us is not so much a question of cost as it is a question of what we do with our available money, with how we judge the comparative worth of things.

Remember, the important thing about a book is to know what it says. It is a living path to an author who is not here, who may in fact have lived centuries earlier, but who can still teach us. I once wrote an essay titled “On the Mystery of Teachers I Have Never Met,” an account of the extraordinary fact that authors and thinkers long dead are still alive when we read them, are still able to instruct. Books, as Plato said, are never as good as conversation, as direct encounters with actual men and women. But the very structure of our lives in time and space, though it may deprive us of their presence, does not deprive us of knowledge of those who lived before or away from us. So read intelligently. St. Paul says to “pray ceaselessly.” I think we ought also to read ceaselessly. Reading, indeed, can itself be a form of prayer.

I have an old cartoon from Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id (April 16, 1969). In it, its hero, the little King, is sitting on his elegantly draped throne. Beside him is an official armored Page. The King commands him to “post this proclamation in the village square.” In the next scene, the dutiful Page is seen in the square pounding the nails to hang up the proclamation, which ominously decrees: “‘Henceforth, reading will be considered a crime against the state,’ Signed, ‘King.’” In the third panel, a rather pedestrian-looking citizen is seen hunched over reading the sign, while over his shoulder the Page is watching, even testing him. The Page inquires of the citizen, “What do you think of the King’s proclamation?” The citizen faces about to the Page and answers in all shrewdness, “What proclamation?” Which is to say, the important thing is not to read, but to understand.


The first books I remember reading were probably from junior high school days, though I may well have read books of some sort earlier. I was not much read to or exposed to books. I did not know classic children’s books, for example, some of which I have read as an adult (a most worthy enterprise). This neglect of books is probably due in part to the fact that my own mother died when I was nine. The point I make here is not to lament what I did not read, but to emphasize Johnson’s idea that we ought to have an “eager desire for instruction,” a desire simply to know. This desire, after all, is very Aristotelian—not that he “invented” it, but he pointed it out. For it was Aristotle who told us, in the beginning of his great Metaphysics (another book we should know about, possess, and read), that what incites us to know, to exercise this “eager desire for instruction,” is simply “wonder”—not fear, or pleasure, or the lack of something (982b10–15). We just want to know. When we have all else, we will still want to know and to know more. This is the truth about us.

It makes no earthly difference, for example, for me to know what vitolphilia means, and yet I am glad to know it. I am delighted that I had something on my desk, just sitting around, that could tell me its meaning. Without it, as Johnson implied, I probably never would have bothered to look it up. The word is not, in fact, in my Random House College Dictionary. I also checked that huge and famous work, the Oxford English Dictionary, but in the miniaturized two-volume edition that has to be read with a magnifying glass, the word vitolphilia was not there either, much to my surprise. But vitola is a Spanish word, and it was in the Spanish dictionary I consulted.

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