Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Sunday, March 23, 2014

On a personal library

Dear Hannah,

As I'm thinking about my library, I have no other thought but that it will belong to you at some point.  I've spent plenty of time thinking about who's going to get it; most of the time has been depressing.  There isn't a single person in the world I could give these to after I die, without thinking my gift was a waste.  Nobody pursues knowledge anymore: nearly everyone thinks he knows everything.  I'm afraid they simply won't be read.  I'm hoping you will be different.


You may have heard several people say, by this point in your life, that you can judge a man by his movie collection (at the time I'm writing this we use DVD's), or by his shoes, or some other useless thing.  I wouldn't ever say that a man's taste in movies proves nothing about him, but I'm of the belief that a man's books say far more.  They say, in a sense, that these are the kind of thoughts that a man likes to think; and if anything can be said about men, it is that they are comprised of thoughts.

This isn't to say that it's impossible to be a good man without good books: it's perfectly likely that a man could know only his Bible from front to back, and surpass every intellectual in wisdom.  And as I'm sure you're aware, men are proven by their behaviors, not their reading habits.  But if a person claims to be educated, I never accept his diploma as proof of having learned anything: I go straight for his bookshelf, and judge the matter myself.  Maybe he has a large collection of books -- but they're all about economics, or theology.  Diversity in subject matter is equally important as the quality: even if he knows everything about one thing, he's a lopsided man.  To be educated or a philosopher isn't to sit around reading books about whether or not we have free will, or whether we learn through our senses or recollect what we already knew: it means to study every aspect of our lives, and try to improve them.  Some people think of philosophers as stuffy, boring people who sit around talking about things that don't matter, but the truth is that every man is observing the world around him, and making judgments based on those observations.  All of us are philosophers.  The question is whether or not we're good ones.

But returning to the quality of a library, I never let cheap paperbacks into my collection if I can find old hardcovers instead, and the reason is because great thoughts should be enshrined within great tomes.  Perhaps the libertarians are comfortable leaving The Virtue of Selfishness (and all of Rand's work, so far as I've seen) in the most boring and profitable paperbacks possible.  Maybe they're more concerned with the message than the form.  It's equally likely they do it because it fits with their philosophy.  Mass production.  Reason.  Efficiency.  If I had written the book, I would have it in a hardcover, so that anyone who really loved it could see it at its best.  But then again, to live a philosophy is more reverent than to write it in gold: perhaps this is what they wanted instead.  I'm certain that whatever they thought, Jesus would have preferred the former idea to the latter.  There's nothing more hypocritical than a foolish man with an impressive library -- except maybe a fool with a degree.

The next thing you should notice, if you're inheriting this library and nothing has happened to it between my writing and your reading of this letter, is that it's comprised of books by dead men, and further, that it contains their greatest works in the best translations.  It's possible to be an intelligent man and read contemporaries, especially when you're living in an age of enlightenment (or even if you're leaving one).  Chesterton read and wrote about the works of his day, and now those works are considered classics -- you can read contemporaries too, but know that the majority of things written today will be forgotten tomorrow.  The most interesting, the most eloquent, the most powerful and thoughtful things have survived to the present day because they contain something for men of all ages, and Time has winnowed out the works that didn't.  In this sense, reading books by dead men will keep you from wasting your time -- time which is quickly passing, and will soon be gone.  You're perfectly free to spend your time reading whatever you like, but reason itself -- I must remind you -- is always the choosing of the most profitable option.

Lastly in regard to books, you've probably heard people complaining about the difficulty of reading old literature: they most usually say the language is outdated.  A careful examination of the matter will prove that in most cases, their distaste has to do more with modern brevity -- or, in other words, an inability to process complex thoughts.  The problem, from what I can tell, has equally to do with laziness.  Learning to speak is difficult; no baby learns fluent Latin by the age of three, and yet we find that every well-raised child in a matter of years masters at least one language. If people wanted to think like greats, they would take the time to think like them. If they believe that thoughts must be made easily digestible by professors or unfaithful translations, then they are not thinking like greats; they are pretending to think like them, like children dressing in their parents' oversized clothes. You might be interested in knowing that it took me several months to read Second Treatise of Government for the first time, despite the fact that it's extremely thin.  Now I could read through it in a matter of days.  These things are a matter of the heart: I have hope that humanity could be great, if only we would will it.

It's almost time for me to go to work, so I'll have to close this letter with a word about your behavior lately.  This morning, you punched me in the eye because you wanted me to stop praying.  I'm sure at whatever point in time you're reading this, that you'll be sorry you did it, so I want to let you know that I accept your apology, and hope that this won't continue into the future.  Or maybe it will, and maybe I wrote this letter to the wrong person.  Maybe you won't be an intellectual like your father at all, and you'll end up an MMA fighter.

With love, always,
-J

PS: If you're just now beginning to take your education seriously, I would recommend the following books.  These combine the best writing with the greatest thinking, and will cover a range of topics sufficient as a foundation for any pursuit of wisdom.
-Montaigne's Essays (Trechmann translation)
-Spurgeon's Sermons
-Thomas Jefferson's letters
-Plutarch's Lives (George Long translation)

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