All that We Deserve, But We Can Do Better

It’s considered to be something of a truism in certain intellectual circles that a nation will get the government and the leaders which its citizens deserve. To take a shot at both left-wing and right-wing liberals, this would mean we Americans deserve both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

We could also say our literature including history and popular science, our journalism, our popular music is also what we deserve. This isn’t a compliment, but we shouldn’t either take insult at honest evaluations nor should we get depressed about it. We should do something about it.

Start the easy way. It’ll be more pleasant. Listen to some easy jazz, maybe some Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald. If you feel close to some sort of ethnic group, listen to some folk-music from that group. Some easy-listening classical music might also be good — Mozart or Haydn or maybe Bach. Then move on to singing along or singing by yourself. Did you once play an instrument? It’s time to start again or maybe just pick up a recorder or check out piano lessons for adults.

Read a good book. Start with some that are relatively easy to read. I was a typical college graduate in the early 1980s when I decided to rebuild my mental strength and I went right to Melville’s novels and serious works of history and philosophy. And the Bible. My brain hurt a lot. Most should probably take it easy and get hold of some serious but pleasant reading, similar to the way you should start a physical exercise program. “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole is an easy read. So are the various humorous novels by Evelyn Waugh. Though I’m not a mystery fan, I enjoyed the novels of Dashiell Hammett — though they are a bit dark and depressing. There are a multitude of novels of various sorts in the public library including some of the middle-brow classics of earlier decades. Take some out. Experiment with novels and other books and don’t feel obligated to work your dreary way through a book you don’t enjoy. You might later feel an urge to go back and tackle it again. That happened to me a number of times.

Try some serious but easy-reading history books or biographies but I’d advise skipping most newer ones. The literacy level of American newspapers is said to average out at about fourth-grade level and the histories and biographies I’ve checked on new-book tables don’t seem much higher than that. John Lukacs writes good histories, insightful and faithful to a moral vision. And he’s an adult writing for adults. There may be others who write quality history books that are unknown to me, but I can recommend a visit to your public library where you should be able to find biographies of great Americans by Freeman and Flexner, histories and biographies by Page Smith, histories by Barzun and Boorstin and more than one Grant. Check out books by the thinkers they refer to. Bibliographies of books you respect can provide many good pointers to more good books.

Do we deserve better than our current politics and literature? Only if we act as if we deserve better and to act in this way will require a sustained effort. So far as I can reconstruct the years of my personal intellectual revival: it took about five years before I could read a sophisticated book and reach the true depths and riches. This was just as true of the Bible as it was of “Moby Dick” or Freeman’s biography of George Washington. We need to decide if our minds, and the cultures they form, are worth saving. Are they worth as much effort as we often expend to earn a promotion or a raise that we might buy a bigger house or a more luxurious car? Is a healthy, strong mind worth the temporary pain of changing our habits, turning off the television or cutting out some of our trips to restaurants or shopping malls? Maybe we should learn a lesson from Groucho Marx: “Television has provided me with many educational experiences. Every time someone turns on a TV set, I pick up a book and go into another room to read it.” [Quoting from memory.]

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