opinion. The channel seems to become narrower even as we expand and multiply the forms of digital and interactive media, and although I don’t know whether the effect follows from a law of nature, I do know that I come across fewer and fewer people who know the names of Seneca and Rabelais, or even those of John O’Hara and Sinclair Lewis. If the losses were merely a matter of failing to keep up appearances like retiring the second gardener or letting go the company plane they could be marked down to the cost of doing business in a world that no longer has the patience to read a compound sentence. But sooner or later the losses add to a sum of stupidity that even the heirs of empire and the children of fortune can ill afford, Apparently we have acquired a great many new machines, but with most of them we’re not sure what we’re meant to do, and unless we’re both intelligent and lucky, we’re likely to end up by killing ourselves with our own toys…. here else except to the past do we turn for a new equa tion, a new line of verse or political theory, a new proof of courage? The inventors of the Italian Renaissance re discovered the languages of antiquity and by so doing, much to their astonishment and delight, found a world of ideas centered not upon God but upon man. It’s not inconceivable that we could come to look upon economists dressed in the holy orders of the World Bank in much the same way that Aretino might have looked at a plump and unctuous cardinal fluttering in the ribbons of the Vatican. Although I often have heard it said that the truth shall make men free, I’m never sure that everybody in the room attaches the same meaning to the phrase. The truth isn’t about the assimilation of doctrine or statistics, not even about the discovery of termites in the wainscotting of the White House. It’s about acquiring the courage of one’s own thought, and if it’s impossible to have courage without convictions, it’s equally impossible to have convictions without knowledge and understanding, The task is never an easy one, especially in a society that encourages its citizens to wander through their lives in a passive stupor…. The newspapers meanwhile worry about the extinction of what the editorial pages sometimes call “the educated citizen” i.e., yet another endangered species, like the tawny ferret and the giant auk. But to the best of my knowledge I have never met such a person. Even the idea of an educated citizen strikes me as preposterous. I can conceive of a “self-educating citi zen,” and I have had the good fortune to meet a number of peo ple who can be so described, none fool enough to proclaim themselves educated. Without exception they possess the valor of their ignorance, conceiving of education neither as a blessed state of being \(comparable to attendance at one of President rather as a ceaseless process of learning and relearning. If in sixteen years they have spent 10,000 hours in a classroom spend another fifty years revising what they thought they had learned in school. As much as I admire contemporary writers … I wait at least three years before reading any new book that receives unanimous acclaim or promises an inside story. I don’t trust the reviews, and an interval of three years allows sufficient time for the wonder of the moment to exhaust the engines of publicity. When I read the authors who no longer can take offense at the judgment of the book clubs, I know that I am in the company of witnesses who have survived the winnowing of time and the misfortunes of bad translation, and I don’t much care whether they choose for their mise en scene Paris in the 1830s or Boston in the 1880s. I look for writers with whom I can imagine myself holding a conversation, who have seen enough of the world to remark on its wonders and vanities without thinking that it has done them a disservice. On first opening a book, I listen for the sound of the first-person singular for the voice of a man or woman trying to say what he or she has actually seen or thought or felt or heard. The device absolves me from reading much of what is published in a given year Most writers make use of institutional codes \(academic, literary, political, buteriorating into the half-life of yesterday’s news. Their transmis sions remain largely unintelligible, and unless I must decipher them for professional reasons, I am content to let them pass by. I cannot read without a pencil in my hand, and in books that I have admired I discover marginalia ten and thirty years out of date, many of them revised and amended to match the shifting angles of my perception, In an edition of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education I find a scribbled note in what I take to be my handwriting at the age of nineteen, a note subsequently crossed out mark “foolishly romantic.” Usually I read three or four books at the same time, preferably by authors of different centuries, and it sometimes happens that I find myself reading about different periods in the history of the same landscape Herodotus and T.E. Lawrence and General Norman Schwarzkopf on the deserts of Arabia; George Orwell, Martin Amis, and Samuel Johnson on the seductions of London. When I complicate the proceedings with marginalia reaching across forty years and written while traveling in cities as unlike each other as Chicago and Havana, I begin to understand what the physicists have in mind when they talk about the continuum of space and time. As I grow older, I tend to read novels less often than I read histories, but a good writer is always a contemporary, whether he or she lived in Venice in the 1640s or died in Budapest in the 1920s, and I’m constantly struck by the number of them who have something urgent to say on topics that it pleases us to consider uniquely modern…. Lewis Lapham is the editor of Harper’s Magazine, where a longer version of this article appears, in the February 1998 issue. FEBRUARY 27, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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