Saturday, December 27, 2008

`To Confirm Prejudice'

Of Adolf Hitler’s reading habits after he arrived in Munich in 1913, his biographer Ian Kershaw writes:

“Reading for Hitler, as in Vienna, was not for enlightenment or learning, but to confirm prejudice.”

Of course that sounds reprehensible but perhaps we shouldn’t risk injury hurrying to congratulate ourselves. Don’t we thrill when a writer substantiates what we already believe, particularly when it’s something we’d prefer remained secret? One perfectly respectable reason for reading is to vicariously try on unpleasant or unfamiliar sentiments. That doesn’t make us embryonic Hitlers. A good reader reads broadly and deeply enough to anticipate and examine thoughts that challenge or violate his own convictions. And how often, when we read, are we motivated by a genuine quest for “enlightenment or learning?” Kershaw continues:

“Most of it was probably done in cafes, where Hitler could continue his habit of devouring the newspapers available to customers. This is where he kept abreast of political developments, and where, at the slightest provocation, he could flare up and treat anyone in proximity to his fiercely held views on whatever preoccupied him at the time.”

In other words, along with the evil he radiated like a stench, Hitler was a familiar type – the crank, the tiresome sort of proto-sociopath who makes a lot of noise in bar rooms and chat rooms. “At the slightest provocation” is the critical phrase. All of us ride hobbyhorses but many of us know they’re hobbyhorses and recognize when it’s time to climb out of the saddle. The perpetually single-minded wear ideas like spiked vests and jack boots. They are humorless and boring, of course, and sometimes dangerous. Eric Hoffer built his writing career on anatomizing the type. In 1950, shortly before publishing his first book, The True Believer, he wrote:

“Perhaps people throw themselves into heated polemics to give content to their lives, to warm their hearts. What Luther said of hatred is true of all quarreling. There is nothing like a feud to make life seem full and interesting.”

This is from “Sparks: Eric Hoffer and the Art of the Notebook,” published in Harper’s in July 2005. And go here to read what I wrote about Hoffer and the power of one book in his life.

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