Books Are Our Salvation

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Those of us who grew up before the time of virtual reality got inspiration from literature and biography. A combative scholar, a good story, the life of an achiever were all part of the mish-mash that formed character.

It is still possible to turn off the screen and to pick up a book. Literate Southerners could do worse than to try James P. Cantrell’s How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature. The South has a cultural distinctiveness that Cantrell identifies as Celtic in origin. Cantrell takes the reader on a compelling analysis of William Gilmore Simms, William Faulkner, the Agrarians, and provides a chapter on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, which he shows to be real literature and not merely a ladies’ romance.

An example of Celtic literature, particularly for children whose parents would like them introduced to the written word, is Linda Jane Roberts’ The Robelinde Diary. This is an enchanting story of a heroine who helps a beleaguered people to face down evil. The Robelinde Diary has wonderful alliteration, and the prose evokes a sense of experiencing a long ago time.

Oxford University Press offers William Taussig Scott and Martin Moleski’s biography of Michael Polanyi, a biography decades in the making. Hungarian born, Polanyi was one of the most important physical chemists of the early 20th century. He had distinguished scientific careers in Germany and England before turning to philosophy. He drew on his experience as a scientist pursuing truth to develop a seminal epistemology that reconciles all aspects of knowing.

The biography is fascinating on many levels. There is the life of the scientist who is able to recognize important phenomena in need of explanation. There is the Hungarian culture that cultivated the life of the mind and the tolerant inquiring personality. There is the philosopher who renewed human confidence in knowing and being. Polanyi was a polymath whose life and achievements are a wonderful spur to intellectual ambition.

Sometimes it is important to get away without having to physically go anywhere. It is possible for adults to escape into The Robelinde Diary, if they can get it out of the hands of their children. Another good choice is Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana novels, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency being the title that identifies the series. Smith was a professor of law at the University of Botswana. His love of the land and delight in the simple life of the people shows in his stories of Mma Ramotswe and her assistant, Mma Makutsi, dealing with problems in their own lives while helping others solve mysteries that trouble their lives.

It takes training and imagination to create a popular video game. Playing games can be so thrilling that it becomes addictive. I read recently that there are now clinics, or de-tox centers, where kids are treated for addiction to video games.

From what little I know of video gaming, it appears to be the case that even the best and most challenging of the games are soon displaced by new games. This does not happen to books. A good piece of writing has a shelf life for generations, even centuries. Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Dickens have no replacements. A good book can be taken down and read again and be passed on to following generations. Literary critics interpret and reinterpret the works endlessly and sometimes excessively. A good book can form good character for generation after generation.

Books teach people their language. They also teach that few problems can be solved by violence and that problems are not solely the preserve of the poor and unfortunate. Real life is in books, and the more artificial virtual reality becomes, the more we need books.

For readers who need Iraq reality with a gentle touch, there is no better selection than Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes. Stewart served as British governor of Maysan Province in Iraq as part of coalition rule during 2003—04. Stewart gives no opinions or exhortations. He merely describes the experience. Readers, no matter how propagandized they might be by Bush/Cheney and Fox "News," will be unable to avoid the conclusion that the entire enterprise was madcap from the beginning. Even Americans who cannot find Iraq on a map will be struck with wonder that the finest representatives of the old empire and the new were vastly more ignorant than Sumerian princes in 2000 B.C.

Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is Chairman of the Institute for Political Economy and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, former contributing editor for National Review, and was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.

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