Monday, April 25, 2011

`Nothing to Think, and Little to Say.'

My neighbor has a remarkable command of his own opinions. Present him with a subject – biofuels, say, or the plays of Shakespeare – and he can discourse at length. His sense of conviction is unfailing. About biofuels: he’s for them. About the plays: he’s been against them since high school when he pretended to read Hamlet but instead relied on a potted crib. “They’re overrated,” he says. With a master’s degree in computer science, my neighbor is fond of distinguishing “street-smart” people from the merely “book-smart,” and fancies himself squarely among the former.

The contents of some minds are received, gifts of chemistry, grace or osmosis, and are sufficient to see one through life. The owners of such minds are walking op-ed pages. Wisdom is earned through living, study and reflection, all active undertakings, which accounts for its scarcity. Samuel Johnson told his servant and friend Frank Barber, “You can never be wise unless you love reading,” with the unstated corollary that books alone cannot bestow wisdom. Johnson advised his goddaughter, Queeney Thrale, to read whenever she found herself alone, warning “they who do not read can have nothing to think, and little to say.”

Which doesn’t stop my neighbor. He’s touchy and self-conscious when it comes to reading. He does a lot of it online, he assures me, but can’t remember the last time he entered a library. He read The Da Vinci Code, which I haven’t read, and “a lot of books about software and nutrition,” though titles escape him. I think it’s safe to assume he hasn’t read Jacques Barzun’s Begin Here: Papers on Educational Reform (1971):

“No one can compute very far without reading correctly; no one can write decently without reading widely and well; no one can speak or listen intelligently without the mass of workaday information that comes chiefly through reading. As for acquiring some notions of history, government, hygiene, philosophy, art, religion, love-making, or the operation of a camera, they are all equally and pitifully dependent on reading.”

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