This week and next I want to talk about some of the reading I had been doing this summer. But first let me reflect for a moment on what I hear from people who read these weekly columns. Most of the responses I receive are positive, and I deeply appreciate the affirmations. But perhaps the most important letters I get come from persons who may not agree with what I have written, but who take the time to suggest some alternative point of view.
Being inundated each week with far more than I can read, I could spend every waking minute eye-deep in documents, columns, reports and books with which I agree. But the assumption that the only truth is that which parallels mine is the sort of narrowness which throttles creative thought. I find it important to give serious attention to articulate conservative voices that challenge what I have believed is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. For years I faithfully followed everything George Will had to say, but in the past year George has apparently taken a handful of nasty pills and unrestrained negativism has emerged from his pen — or computer.
I still occasionally look in on Fox News and Bill O’Reilly, but I regularly digest what David Brooks and Michal Gerson have to say. While those on the far fight consider these commentators RINOS (Republicans in name only) they represent a conservative rationality which I find instructive. While their perspective is considerably to the right of mine, I find them cogent and thought provoking.
And that brings me around to my summer reading. If David Brooks suggests that certain books are worth looking at, I take that counsel seriously enough to take a look. Of the six he recently recommended I was acquainted with Anna Karenina, All the Kings Men, Confessions by Saint Augustine, and The History of the Peloponnesian war. I knew George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, and consider his Road to Wigan Pier one of the best books I have read this decade, I was not acquainted with his volume of Essays which Brooks recommended.
While maintaining his perspective as a radical socialist, Orwell’s wide-ranging mind has gone far beyond that political parochialism. Perhaps in all literature there has never been a clearer judgment on colonialism than his short essay on Killing an Elephant, and every writer would be advised to take seriously his simply put advice:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Going through Brooks’ list may save you from wallowing in much of the froth that passes these days for literature. And while you are at it, you may also want to give attention to what a few other rational thinkers have to say and whose opinions may be far from yours. Challenging our prejudices may just be a fruitful intellectual discipline.
Next week I’ll look with you at the book everyone is talking about but few have really read, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty.