My mother, though an unwavering supporter of my educational aspirations, thought I spent too much time reading and thinking and talking about books. It is true that the stuff of books–the depiction of life and reflections upon it—is not the same thing as life itself. From time to time one meets some blinkered academic real-life exemplar of Melville’s “hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm,” who fails to grasp this elemental truth. But I am not now, nor ever was of their number. Still I do tend, in my mind, to relate life’s emergent occasions to books read long ago. As it turns out, such times include political emergencies.
The same conservative and patriotic impulses that made it impossible for me to vote for Donald Trump made it impossible for me to view his incipient presidency with naked prejudice or simply to bewail the democratic consensus that, in truth, more often than not leaves me in the minority. There is indeed something awesome about the much-touted “peaceful transfer of power” in and of itself. I have not abandoned all hope, but I have found myself thinking about some of my earliest encounters with transformative books.
The first great book I remember reading was Paddle to the Sea. A young Indian boy living near Lake Nipigon in Ontario carves a small model of a canoe with oarsman and places it in a hillside snow bank to await the spring thaw. Down rivulets and washes and creeks and ponds and streams the wooden paddler fitfully glides, bumps, and hurtles over several years, touring the Great Lakes, making it at last to the St. Lawrence Seaway and, finally, to the sea itself. From this book I learned two things: some in-depth geography and the wonder of narrative. It is a particular joy to me that my grandchildren have shared my infantile enthusiasm for this book.
Paddle to the Sea naturally had an “author,” one with a strangely repetitive name: Holling Holling. But I never thought of it as an authored book. If it had an author it was the fictional Indian lad who had carved the boat; its hero was the little toy boat itself. But not too much later I did find a “favorite author”. His name was Harold Lamb (1892-1962). Harold Lamb was a versatile professional writer in several genres of fiction and non-fiction. He had a special interest and expertise in Eastern materials, and two of his early popular historical works had a big impact on me. These were Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men (1927) and Iron Men and Saints (1930). His imagined version of the barbaric world of the Mongolian steppes introduced me to what only several decades later I would come to call alterity—the radical “differentness” of human history that wars against our comfortable assumptions about “the unchanging human heart.” The vision of the Crusades in Iron Men and Saints, though it would now make the medievalist in me groan, convinced me of the potency of ideas in history.
But I also read one very important “political” book before my twelfth birthday, though I would not have described it as political at the time: Syrian Yankee (1943), the autobiography of a Levantine immigrant named Salom Rizk (1908-1973). Rizk arrived in America in 1927, more or less just in time for the Great Depression. He lacked resources or powerful sponsors. He was a poorly educated Arabic speaker lacking even rudimentary English. He was immediately thrown into living and work conditions most of us would describe as appalling. Yet the book is a glowing paean to America and the “American Dream,” a self-conscious and eloquent meditation on the differences, still to some degree relevant, between the Old World and the New. The book thrilled me in with its infectious patriotism, as it was intended to do. In school each morning we pledged our allegiance to the flag. Syrian Yankee gave new meaning to this formulaic exercise. How proud I was to be an American. Just like Salom Rizk! I see now that the book’s mass-market success was fanned by the saccharine boosterism of DeWitt Wallace at the Reader’s Digest. Salom Rizk was the very model of the successful “assimilated immigrant”. But so what? He really was such a model.
The year 2017 is not 1927, when Rizk arrived in New England, nor 1947, when (probably) I read his book. There are other significant differences to be born in mind. The “Syria” from which Rizk departed was actually that part of the decayed Ottoman province now called Lebanon. Rizk was not a Muslim, but a member of the once numerous ancient Eastern Christian communities now rapidly vanishing from the Middle East. Furthermore his family already had American connections that, though lapsed, proved crucial for his success in reaching our shores. But he was a Syrian Yankee, a great American, in his time a giant of Arab-American letters, and a philanthropist who did important and effective work on behalf of “Save the Children”. We could use quite a few more of his ilk. It is an insult to our intelligence no less than our moral instincts to be told by our national leaders that would-be Syrian immigrants—“huddled masses yearning to breathe free” if ever such existed–are today so great a threat to our physical safety that they must be subjected to “extreme vetting” (absurd phrase!), shut down, locked out, turned away. Have we so far lost our confidence—along with our dignity and our decency?