Years ago, we had some elderly neighbors who passed away. In the weeks that followed, their son undertook to clear out their house, which was no small task. One day, he came to our door and spoke to my then teenage daughter, as my husband and I were not at home. He explained that his parents had a lot of books, and he hated the idea of throwing out books… would we be interested? “Oh, yes,” she replied, “My parents love books!”
Indeed, our home was already overrun with books to the point that I think we could pretty much save Western Civilization if necessary. When we returned home that day, boxes and boxes of old books awaited us. Probably half or more of the books were of little interest; they were popular novels and such that didn’t stand the test of time. But among the others were titles on history, religion, philosophy as well as classic literature. It was there that I discovered “The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith,” a novel about a priest in early 20th century Scotland – a surprise given that the old folks were Jewish. It indicates that people were more open and literate in the past.
This was true in my own home when I was growing up; I remember clearly seeing my mother reading books on Catholicism but also the Reformation. Religion, politics, history… we were surrounded by good books. I see evidence of this also when I go to estate sales, which I enjoy doing. Many people were quite widely read – ordinary people who worked at ordinary jobs – and had a range of interests. Perhaps most of them never finished high school, but they were self-educated and engaged. It was true with music also. Many record collections included classical music along with popular titles. There was a desire to be well-rounded and knowledgeable.
When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a bank. On a summer day, the staff was invited to the boss’s house for a pool party. The subject of reading and good books came up, and the boss invited us in to see her collection – two bookcases filled with Harlequin Romances! These were trashy little novellas, barely a step up from comic books in terms of their literary content. I could not believe that anyone would spend time with something so meaningless when a world of real literature was as close as the local library, especially someone who was educated.
I have since met one other person like her, a lawyer, whose interests are completely vacuous, however, I think it is increasingly common. Perhaps it is an effect of TV, internet and social media increasingly filling our minds with fluff, leaving little room for substance. I’m not sure the cause. But I think we need to be aware that even though we may be more highly educated than generations before us, we need to nurture our intellect more than ever.
Fewer and fewer people have a substantive knowledge of history, literature, philosophy and religion. These areas have been dismissed as the purview of “dead white men”. This leaves us with a generation of narcissists (who couldn’t tell you where the word comes from) living in the moment, blissfully unaware of what came before them. Where once Scripture or Shakespeare might be quoted, today it is Seinfeld or the Simpsons. It is a disturbing trend. We might be reminded that things did not end well for Narcissus.
We are entering the season of “summer reading.” So often, that means something light. On the other hand, since these months are usually lighter in terms of work and scheduling, perhaps it is the time when we can take on something deeper and more meaningful. It might be a good occasion to make a gift to our children of one of our own favorite books to enjoy together.
“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden