Why Some Books Are More Important Than Others (Sorry, Oprah's Book Club!)
Sorry Oprah - you don't make the grade. Because some books are more important than others and yours are not them. Here's why:
Often readers of the great books react defensively or shyly to the slander of being elitist. The universal, generous, life-affirming views of readers of great books are disregarded as old-fashioned or simply mis-informed. So the readers of the great books are few and silent, not because we are few and silent readers (far from it! we are the majority), but because we do not believe in our own narrative.
Readers of the great books do not believe our own story about reality. When some misinforned douchebag pops up and tells us that we are ethnocentric or homophobic or racist or patriarchal for being practicing liberal artists, we quail and evade the shameful ruse. We pretend we have no story. We disappear from the noise and superficiality of culture.
Worse, under the onslaught of vicious and mis-informed positions about reality, we actually re-define liberty as "the right to be left alone", because the illiberal falsehoods of the popular culture us are defining liberty as the right to interfere in other peoples' thinking and lives.
Bottom line: we liberal artists are hypocrites. We do not believe our own story. We liberal artists do not act like be believe the basic ideas of a free human being:
- that reality is founded in natural law,
- that nature, not culture, is our primary limiting factor on every endeavor,
- that history is the record of inquiries into the advance of liberty,
- that civil plurality of opinions based in reason, fact, and evidence is the function of politics,
- that personal responsibility and accountability is the basis for trustworthiness and esteem in public discourse;
- and that good character in action is the primary function of citizenship.
We don't act like we really believe that, otherwise we would speak in a way that demonstrates that.
And perhaps the clearest expression of our lack of clarity about our story is the failure to admit that some books are better than others.
It seems that what we affirm as true ("some books are better than others"), we also fall into the error of denying the false ("some books are not worth reading"). But this is not the case. All books are considered worth reading by their creators, just as all speakers have the right to be heard once. But in the case of all narcissistic speakers, the right to speak freely then comes with the need to practice the additional responsibility to sit down, shut up and listen to what others have to say.
Similarly, some books have the right to spread ridiculous nonsense. But with that right, then, comes the additional responsibility to be put down unread half-way and justly compared with the great books and found lacking.
Is it "unfair" to compare bad or mediocre books to the great books, and find the bad books wanting? Well, let's look at the question another way:
Is it unfair to put a highly intelligent PhD student in charge of a science lab over a retarded student with development difficuties? Of course it is unfair. But it is also just, right, practical and effective. We can ideally say that the retarded student has "equal rights" to run the science lab, and in a weird idealistic way this is true; but we can also say that ultimately the educated PhD student is the one actually really qualified to run the science lab.
Similarly, when we say that some books are better than others, we are not saying that certain bad books do not have the right to exist, and are not "equal" as books (in some weird hypothetically idealistic way). Rather, we are saying that the great books are uniquely suited to the living of a free human life in a way which bad, mediocre, or merely good books are not.
The error in our story about the great books is that we have allowed the dialog to move purely into the realm of rights, which concern fairness, and unjustly neglected the realm of suitability, which concerns justice. We have allowed idealistic but unreal imaginations to pass and ignored realistic and sensible practicalities. And this omission is a failure of great book readers and liberal artists, not of the uneducated folk who cannot or will not dedicate themselves to discovering the liberal arts.
Allow me to put it in a syllogism:
First, the great books are better for liberal artists than any other books to be read.
Second, the most free and full flourishing possible for all human beings requires securing inner freedom of mind, heart, and person, and to establish an objectively free society, and this is the function of a liberal artist.
Therefore, finally, the great books are the best books for all human beings to read to become subjectively free and to preserve and increase our objective political liberty.
So, sorry Oprah. Sorry publishers. Sorry kindle. Sorry supermarkets. Sorry TV. Sorry bloggers. And sorry you guys. But we have something more important to read today, and it will not be you.
Please visit again for part two of this talk, showing some practical examples.