Books Can (Help) Save Our Dying Culture

Can learning to read better, more deeply, and with greater understanding really save the world? I believe it can, at least, help, particularly when we read great works in the Western cultural tradition.

I’VE BEEN WANTING to get back to writing on this blog for some time now, after several years of neglect. I originally called this blog “A Catholic Reader” because that describes my reading tastes—“catholic” with a small “c”—and because it also describes my perspective as a reader, “Catholic” with a capital “C”, a worldview that permeates my understanding of, well, everything. Now that I want to get back to blogging about books and reading, a part of me still wants to teach others, about how to read and why to read and how to get the greatest pleasure and benefit out of what we read. But I also want to “show” more than “tell”—something I’ve learned from becoming a writer and editor of stories, as well as a reader.

Creating a Literary Counterculture

One of the reasons I think it’s time to return to the blog is that the world is going mad and things are falling apart. When things fall apart, we need to rebuild. Our culture is falling apart, for many reasons but at least partly because we no longer know how to read with appreciation and understanding. I firmly believe that those best equipped to rebuild our culture will be those who are still deeply rooted in what has been handed down to us, what has borne the test of time and taught us things that can help us build the future. And much of that is preserved in books, which remain even when human memory has faded.

Unfortunately, anything old seems to be out of favor these days, whereas old books used to be the chief focus of literary education. In my lifetime, the teaching of literature has undergone a disastrous revolution, as Marxist ideology first permeated the graduate schools, then undergraduate education, and finally ordinary schooling. “Woke” culture wants to impose this ideological orientation on the world, to tell us what to think and to deny us the tools to actually learn to think for ourselves. Everything has been politicized and virtually every part of the past is being erased, after being thoroughly picked to pieces.

Well, I’m not going to do that. I believe that literature—especially literature that endures, that continues to attract readers over many decades or centuries or even millennia—conveys something that is innately human, something that can speak to readers far separated in time, space, and culture from its writers. It can be, as I’ve discussed in earlier posts, “philosophical” in the best sense of that word—but it does so by being “poetical,” i.e., by creating an analogy between its fictional characters and its present readers. (See this blog post about how literature engages the imagination to help us grasp universal truths.)

Attempts to reclaim the riches of the past are something that identity politics, “woke culture,” and narrow ideologies resist and fear. They don’t want us to see ourselves in literary heroes of the past or to feel any sympathy for historical figures who have traditionally been held up as examples. We are meant to believe ourselves to be either victims or oppressors, to think of the past as hopelessly ignorant and ourselves as wonderfully progressive and superior. One of the first things this strategy of cultural destruction attacked was the teaching of literature. Why? Because reading the literature of the past requires adopting a kind of openness to difference that the ideologues only pretend to value; it requires a humility that allows us to recognize that, when it comes to personal struggles and temptations, we are really no better than our forebears.

Delightful Truths from Great Stories

So I hope what I do here will, in some small way, serve to rebuild a culture of reading. I’ll be discussing fiction chiefly, stories that “instruct” by “delighting,” as the Roman poet Horace once described the function of narrative poetry (dead white guy—no apologies). Believe it or not, even modern novels do (or can do) this, but they succeed only when the “instruction” is well-hidden in the delight that they provide the reader. Every good story shows us something that is true even if fictitious—truths that no fact-checker can affirm or deny. My task here will be to reflect on the truths that I find in these stories and perhaps also to muse on the way delightful and artful way those truths are conveyed.

If you’d like to follow along, be sure to subscribe to this blog. And please feel free to leave comments, suggestions, and encouragement below!

3 replies on “Books Can (Help) Save Our Dying Culture”

Well, if I could only be one book, it would have to be the Bible. It tells a great story (in fact, the Greatest Story Ever Told), covers all of human history, is jam-packed with fascinating characters, has the greatest Hero ever to grace the lines of an epic, is the most tragic of all tales, and yet has the happiest ending imaginable. It's also the truest story ever told, and contains many levels of meaning. Best of all, it was written by the greatest Author there will ever be! So, yeah — no contest. The Bible it is.

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