“It’s not the being bookish that saves us from barbarism, and it isn’t even that education of the sympathies that Middlemarch provides: it’s the questioning, the wondering, the doubting, the refusing, the arguing, the discovering thoughts and feelings you never knew you had because you never had them, and the jettisoning of them the minute they become familiar; it’s the restlessness of reading when we are not passive recipients of language but partners in its equivocations, its leaps and gaps and contradictions, its marvellous refusal, when in the service of art, to believe finally in a word it says.”
I’m unsure how many people read in the manner Jacobson describes; fewer, I suspect, than in the past, though it was never a majority gift. People read for many reasons, some admirable, some reprehensible, and I’ve never observed a correlation between bookishness or the number of books consumed, and any school of applied morality. Bibliophiles can be monsters and illiterates saints. Jacobson, who is sometimes funnier and more thoughtful than we expect of a newspaper columnist or even a novelist, asks: “Instead of bombing the caliphate, should we be dropping copies of Middlemarch?”
In The Weekly Standard, another novelist, Cynthia Ozick responds to some remarkably stupid things said by a Turkish novelist.
“Is there no infamy so depraved that it can escape explanation, apologia, vindication verging on exoneration, all under the gentle rubric of `understanding’? The terrorist's mind: Let us strive to understand it — what shall we find there? Deformations of humanity, corruptions neither inborn nor bred, but chosen.”
Do we want to “understand” terrorists? No, of course not. We want to kill them. Evil is not ameliorated by our self-congratulating efforts to comprehend it. Excuses excuse nothing. If there is an explanation for the behavior of terrorists, it’s an old, familiar one: They enjoy it. Death cultists choose to revel in death. Ozick will have none of it:
"At bottom, an open-hearted willingness to understand `everyone’ is an appalling distraction from the intrinsic depravity of the act of premeditated murder. The evil deed speaks for itself; to search out the evildoer’s `backstory,’ to look for some exculpating raison d'être, is no more useful or edifying or moral than an attraction to pornography.”
In her final novel, Daniel Deronda, the one George Eliot wrote after Middlemarch, her narrator says: “It is hard for us to live up to our own eloquence, and keep pace with our winged words, while we are treading the solid earth and are liable to heavy dining. Besides, it has long been understood that the proprieties of literature are not those of practical life.”