The Importance of Books in Divisive Times

In these gloomy, divisive times, does anyone care about books? I do.

Books emphasize interiority, encourage empathy, require thought and are meant to foster rational argument — things we all need.

Perspective by Mike Dirda

When I was growing up, my father — always eager to instruct his backward son — would regularly intone the phrase, “I shall pass this way but once.” Since Dad wasn’t one to care about anybody outside our extended family, he never quoted the rest of the old Quaker proverb: “Any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now.” No, he simply meant that I shouldn’t put things off, imagining that I’d come back to them at some later date.

To my surprise, this paternal advice became, without my quite knowing how, the abiding principle of my professional life as a writer and reviewer — at least until recently. Over the years I’ve certainly returned several times to a handful of writers, most prominently those twin monsters, Evelyn Waugh and Vladimir Nabokov, but in general I’ve never counted on rereading anything. I give each book or subject my best, then move on to something new.

Still, I often guiltily recall Oscar Wilde pointing out that if a book wasn’t worth reading over and over again, it shouldn’t be read at all. That’s essentially an aesthetic attitude, the approach of a connoisseur — or, more sadly, the fate of a college professor locked into teaching Milton for the next 40 years. But since adolescence, I’ve wanted to experience as many books as possible, to familiarize myself with, as Matthew Arnold’s catchphrase goes, the best that has been thought and said. It should be emphasized that, for me, the “best” means the best in every genre, not just the traditional classics of world literature. Read the full piece at the Washington Post.

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