Archive for the month “April, 2015”

The Real Power of Books

To mark the publication of my new book, “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture,” I’ll be posting an essay from it each day.  

The sun was sitting high in the sky and I was near a shady tree as my kids splashed in the pool. Life is good.

Zane_cover.inddThen I picked up the paper: bombings in Syria, genocide in Kenya, massacres in Iraq.

I looked back at my children, smiled, then marveled at the mind’s capacity to take in all the information of the world and then judge our well-being by what’s in front of our noses. It’s the same thought I have whenever my wife and I discuss our pressing need to add another room to our fairly spacious home, or when I conclude that I really do need a new DVD player or component for my stereo system. I know that there are people in far-flung spots consigned to circumstances so abject they are almost beyond imagining. And yet my desires don’t fade—and still I feel good about myself, still consider myself a good person.

This dynamic is particularly troubling for us book-lovers. Besides being a great source of pleasure, books are our primary gateway to other lives and cultures. If books serve a larger purpose, it is their power to brake our god-given selfishness. Nature primes us to look out for ourselves; few of us require help in that regard. What most of us need are constant reminders to consider everyone else, to imagine their needs, hopes, desires and circumstances.

Personal experience has convinced me that books are both the greatest tool for empathy we have created and totally inadequate to the task. Some of the best-read people I know are among the nastiest and most selfish individuals I’ve never wanted to know. For every person I’ve met whose character was edified by the written word, scores more leave me wondering how someone who has devoured so much wisdom can be so small-minded.

I know this to be true: Books do not make us better people. They may show us the big picture, but they inspire precious few of us to put away our petty personal concerns. Even the best books cannot make us replace selfishness with empathy.

I also know this to be true: All that is dead wrong. Books make our world a far kinder, more just and empathetic place.

To reconcile these conflicting beliefs, consider the Paradox of Reading: Though books make none of us better people, they make all of us better—even those who don’t read.

Western history makes this strange notion clear. Remember the world into which Johann Gutenberg introduced his printing press around 1453: Slavery was rampant, women were treated as men’s property, and stiff class structures stifled almost everyone’s aspirations.

Gutenberg’s invention changed that. As his press enabled the relatively cheap and easy dissemination of ideas, the status quo came under intense scrutiny. Writers began asking lofty questions about how people should interact. The Renaissance flourished, then the Enlightenment. Rights, equality and freedom became topics of discussion.

The writings of philosophers such as John Locke inspired our Founding Fathers to imagine a nation in which every citizen would be treated with dignity. Of course, we are painfully aware of how far the founders fell short of that goal. Western history since Gutenberg is filled with bloody wars and vicious ideologies—including colonialism and Nazism—that have challenged this story of progress, urging us to see others as less than human.

Progress doesn’t follow a straight line. Our instinct to look out for ourselves, to only consider our needs, is powerful.

What’s striking is not that this selfishness endures, but that we’ve made such strides in neutralizing it. It is no coincidence that the civil rights movements that have transformed America in the past 60 years occurred at the same time that we expanded access to higher education. When I look at the great strides made by women and African-Americans, as I watch gays and lesbians move toward full equality, I am amazed that anyone can long for the past. Our world is a better place, getting better all the time.

And books are a chief cause. This point is overlooked because while our minds act locally, books work globally. Our instinct is to measure books by their power to transform us personally. What can you do for me? But books operate on a wider scale—slowly but surely changing the values of the larger culture. We, in turn, inherit these assumptions, which shape our standards and expectations.

On the whole, I am a better, more caring and empathetic person than my ancestors who lived in the Jim Crow South. This is not because I’ve paid more attention to my morality. I just happen to live in a more moral world, one that has been shaped and improved by books.


Lack of curiosity is curious

To mark the publication of my new collection of essays and reviews, “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture,” I will be posting a series of pieces from the book, all of which first ran in The News & Observer of Raleigh.

Lack of curiosity is curious

Over dinner a few weeks ago, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff told a troubling story. He asked students in his introduction to creative writing course at UNC-Chapel Hill if they had read Jack Kerouac. Nobody raised their hand. Then he asked if anyone had ever heard of Jack Kerouac. More blank expressions.

Zane_cover.inddNaumoff began describing the legend of the literary wild man. One student offered that he had a teacher who was just as crazy. Naumoff asked the professor’s name. The student said he didn’t know. Naumoff then asked this oblivious scholar, “Do you know my name?”

After a long pause, the young man replied, “No.”

“I guess I’ve always known that many students are just taking my course to get a requirement out of the way,” Naumoff said. “But it was disheartening to see that some couldn’t even go to the trouble of finding out the name of the person teaching the course.”

The floodgates were opened and the other UNC professors at the dinner began sharing their own dispiriting stories about the troubling state of curiosity on campus. Their experiences echoed the complaints voiced by many of my book reviewers who teach at some of the nation’s best schools.

All of them have noted that such ignorance isn’t new — students have always possessed far less knowledge than they should, or think they have. But in the past, ignorance tended to be a source of shame and motivation. Students were far more likely to be troubled by not-knowing, far more eager to fill such gaps by learning. As one of my reviewers, Stanley Trachtenberg, once said, “It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care about what they don’t know.”

This lack of curiosity is especially disturbing because it infects our broader culture. Unfortunately, it seems both inevitable and incurable.

In our increasingly complex world, the amount of information required to master any particular discipline — e.g. computers, life insurance, medicine — has expanded exponentially. We are forced to become specialists, people who know more and more about less and less.

This is occurring at a time when Americans increasingly put work at the center of their lives even as the rise of globalization and other free market approaches have turned job security into an anachronism. In this frightening new world, students do not turn to universities for mind expansion but vocational training. In the parlance of journalism, they want news they can use.

Upon graduation, they must devote ever more energy to mastering the floods of information that might help them keep their wobbly jobs. Crunched, they have little time to learn about far-flung subjects.

The narrowcasting of our lives is writ large in our culture. Faced with a near infinite range of knowledge, the Internet slices and dices it all into highly specialized niches that provide mountainous details about the slightest molehills. It is no wonder that the last mainstream outlet of general knowledge, the daily newspaper, is suffering declining readership. When people only care about what they care about, their desire to know something more, something new, evaporates like the morning dew.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. In comforting response to these exigencies, our culture gives us a pass, downplaying the importance of knowledge, culture, history and tradition. Not too long ago, students might have been embarrassed to admit they’d never heard of Jack Kerouac. Now they’re permitted to say “whatever.”

When was the last time you met anyone who was ashamed because they didn’t know something?

It hasn’t always been so. When my father, the son of Italian immigrants, was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, he aspired to be a learned man. Forced to go to work instead of college, he read “the best books,” listened to “the best music,” learned which fork to use for his salad. He watched Fred Astaire puttin’ on his top hat and tyin’ up his white tie, and dreamed of entering that world of distinction.

That mind-set seems as dead as my beloved Dad. The notion of an aspirational culture, in which one endeavors to learn what is right, proper and important in order to make something more of himself, is past.

In fairness, the assault on high culture and tradition that has transpired since the 1960s has paid great dividends, bringing long overdue attention to marginalized voices.

Unfortunately, this new freedom has sucker punched the notion of the educated person who is esteemed not because of the size of his bank account or the extent of his fame but the depth of his knowledge. Instead of a mainstream reverence for those who produce or appreciate works that represent the summit of human achievement, we have a corporatized and commodified culture that hypes the latest trend, the next new thing.

People are shaped by the world around them. In our here, now, get-the-job-done environment of modern America, the knowledge for knowledge’s sake ethos that is the foundation of a liberal arts education — and of a rich and satisfying life — has been shoved to the margins. Curiously, in a world where everything is worth knowing, nothing is.


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