“Bisogna saper leggere”: “You must know how to read.”

JLukacsA few week’s ago, “The Federalist” in its weekend edition (what they call their “longreads” feature) linked to this powerful essay by ninety-four year old professor, historian, and author John Lukacs.

In “Surrounded by Books” Lukacs writes about the influence books and reading had on him from his childhood in Budapest, Hungary and subsequently throughout his life in the United States. He refers to the modern age as the “Age of Books,” and I tend to agree with him.

But he also writes with pain about the decline of books and reading – and words and writing. But he writes with hope, ending his essay with these closing thoughts – good food for the mind on this Thursday night:

What Cicero was supposed to have said 2,000 years ago (“All I want is a book and a garden”) and a literate Englishman 200 years ago (“A study full of books is worth more than a purse full of money”) were statements from a long-faded past. But it was not until the end of the 20th century that the disappearance of large numbers of readers finally led to drastic changes in the publishing of all kinds of reading matter, very much including books. The massive influence of pictures and images had already preceded that (the movies). But the death of the Age of Books, and of newspapers and magazines, was, indeed, television, followed by the Internet. Already by the early 1990’s, many weeklies, magazines, journals, and quarterlies ceased to exist. Entire large and traditional publishing houses went out of business. Others cut their staffs to minimums. Bookstores began to disappear. In most schools there still was a minority of good students. Even they read very little.

All of these transformations may suggest one momentous change: the declining effect of words. “In the beginning was the Word”—and at the end of an age? The incredible spread and availability of communications holds little promise, because communications are only instruments of transmissions. Meanwhile, a great and deep consequence of the declining human respect for, and therefore the function of, words is the increasing evidence of the weakening of attention, seen in more and more spheres of life.

Still, history is unpredictable. God writes straight with crooked lines. And things are never quite as bad (or as good) as they seem. Books will always exist. Jefferson’s category of the educated minority, on whose existence the prospects of civilized mankind depend, is no longer enough. To educated we need to add interested. The very impulse of human attention depends on human interest, a quality often involved with humility, with our capacity of seeing beyond ourselves. This awareness sometimes issues from reading.

In 1955, Harold Nicolson wrote, “I am confident that in coming generations the proportion of uninteresting people will be much diminished, whereas the proportion of interesting people will increase.” In 1950, the great English bibliophile Holbrook Jackson (borrowing from Aldous Huxley) declared, “the proper study of mankind is books.” I am uncertain about the first of these statements, but not about the second. Now consider that Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga, two of the greatest historians of the Age of Books, wrote their most famous histories less for professional academic historians than for what in their lifetime could still be regarded as an educated and interested public. And when on occasion someone asked Burckhardt how best to study history, the great man answered in three words: “Bisogna saper leggere.”

“You must know how to read.”

Published in: on December 14, 2017 at 10:52 PM  Leave a Comment