Allan Bloom: the failure to read good books both narrows people’s vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency: the belief that the here and now is all there is.
America was founded deliberately by people who believed in heaven and hell, who thought about rights and responsibilities, and that considered what type of society would promote virtuous living by serious thinking. What we read, or don’t read, still drives not only what we believe but also how we engage with each other and how we make decisions about our future. Living in a republic demands a great deal of us. Among the responsibilities of each citizen one is keeping ourselves sufficiently informed so that we can participate effectively, argue our positions honorably, and, hopefully, forge sufficient consensus to understand each other and then to govern. Critical reading skills are not a luxury, but rather a necessity for responsible adults and responsible citizens. America’s future depends on the kind of thinking that reading presupposes and nourishes.
Ben Sasse relates a time when a friend of his asked, “what books do you want your kids to have read by the time they leave home?” In response, he and his wife created a list that they now constantly update. He encourages all parents to think through what type of wisdom and knowledge they want to pass down to their children.
Becoming truly literate requires work. Reading done well is not a passive activity, like sitting in front of the screen. It requires attention, engagement, and active questioning. But our culture of the “ever present” conspires to blunt our curiosity and distract us from sustained thought. The average American now reads only 19 minutes per day. According to Sasse, this is a threat to our republic. Great books create a shared community with those who have read them, discussed them, and argued about them.
In contrast with our age of short attention spans Sasse discusses the Lincoln-Douglass debates. Back when Lincoln and Douglas debated, they would speak for hours without interruptions, and then would proceed to rebut one another. At one point Douglas spoke for three hours uninterrupted. In another debate, Lincoln suggested a break so that the audience could go home, eat dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. We no longer have the habits, that is the attention span, that comes with concentrated, uninterrupted reading that makes debates like this conceivable, let alone pleasurable.
Sasse ends the chapter by sharing a list of books that he has found helpful. I’m not going to repeat this list, but I will say many of them are books that your sons and daughters will read if they continue on at this school.