Written for Operation Werewolf by Joshua Buckley
“I learned to read durin’ my stretch. First, Spot Goes to the Farm, then Runaway Bunny, then law books, mostly.”—Max Cady, Cape Fear
I thought about calling this essay “Why I Read Such Good Books,” in homage to Nietzsche’s “Why I Write Such Good Books.” Reading good books is not the same as reading in general. Most of us read at least some of the time (fewer and fewer regular Americans read at all, but I will assume that if you’re reading this, you’re not a regular American). However, most of this reading is sporadic and unfocussed. I don’t typically read for pleasure, and I’m not a big reader of novels—although, lately, I’ve been enjoying Bernard Cornwall’s Last Kingdom series. I also like reading biographies of eccentric and creative people (Crowley, Luis Buñuel), books on sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, studies of new religious movements (or “cults,” to put it in the vernacular), books on unexplained phenomena, and anything dealing with crime and the criminal underworld: bikers, gangsters, murderers, and prisoners. But mostly, I save this kind of reading for road-trips or other occasions when I’m too distracted for “serious” reading. My serious reading is geared towards ancient history, philosophy and politics, and the history of religion and mythology. I say that I don’t usually read for pleasure as an end-in-itself, but reading this kind of material has brought me an immense amount of pleasure nonetheless.
I am an autodidact. I dropped out of high school and moved out on my own when I was sixteen, and—besides a rather pointless year at a community college—that’s pretty much the extent of my “formal” education. Like most autodidacts, this has caused me a certain amount of insecurity. Surely, I have imagined more than once, people who went to “real” school must know a lot more than I do. This insecurity has propelled me to read obsessively, always with a nagging sense that however many pages I can turn, it’s still not enough to say that I’m really educated. Of course—and this is the irony—everyone should feel this way. That’s because learning is a process that should continue until they pry your books from your cold, dead hands, whether an academic institution has sought fit to confer a degree upon you or not. Admittedly, there are certain things you will not be able to teach yourself, although some of this depends on your own innate abilities and predilections. Many people are able to learn foreign languages on their own, but I have failed pretty miserably in all of my attempts (I did manage to pick up a tiny bit of German by taking classes at the Goethe-Institut). And obviously, you cannot teach yourself to be a doctor or a nuclear engineer, if that’s what it is you want to do.
What I am talking about here is acquiring a liberal arts education, broadly speaking. This is something you can do almost entirely on your own, either without college or as a life-long pursuit after leaving college. In fact, it might be better to acquire this kind of education on your own. It’s certainly cheaper. The college system in America has become a way to saddle young people with practically insurmountable amounts of debt before they are old enough to figure out the racket. Worse—and at this point it almost goes without saying—liberal arts universities have subordinated real, substantive learning to social engineering and political indoctrination by people who—in a sane society—would probably be taken out and shot. In many cases, you can no longer even get degrees in things like English or Philosophy, not to mention more obscure disciplines like Germanic or Indo-European studies, as these programs have been gutted to make way for more “inclusive” options.
But just as you won’t get the results you’re looking for in the gym by haphazardly throwing weights around without some kind of program, reading deliberately requires formulating a plan. Having a structure for your reading will help you build a foundation for reading based on your narrower interests, and will push you to read things you might have otherwise missed. You may want to read a certain philosopher because his worldview fits with your own, but it’s not going to be as meaningful if you can’t situate his work within the broader history of philosophy, or the historical context that explains the philosopher’s perspective. You might be interested in the Vikings or ancient Spartans, but it can be misleading to study these subjects in a vacuum.
It’s also exceptionally valuable to read books that you disagree with. This will sharpen up your own arguments, and can open up new pathways for thinking about things. Only reading books that you’re comfortable with is like only doing exercises that you “like”: it might make your time in the weight room seem easier, but you won’t see any appreciable growth. For me, one of the best ways to accomplish these goals is to build a curriculum based around ready-made reading lists, as well as books that provide a broad overview of a subject with clues for further reading—from which I can build my own additional lists. Journaling your reading, and checking successfully completed texts off your lists, will provide you with great personal satisfaction and will help you keep track of your progress. If you’re already journaling your lifts in the gym, this should all be old hat.
What follows are a few of the foundational books I built my own curriculum around. I read most of this material twenty years ago but, as with any foundational work, they are still sources I frequently return to. You can use these suggestions, or you can devise your own strategy. But make a plan, and attack it.
I really like reading history but, as I said above, it’s mostly ancient and medieval history that gets me excited. I would much rather read about Tamerlane building pyramids out of human skulls to terrorize his enemies than try to figure out the labyrinthine intrigues surrounding the court of Louis XIV. So I decided I needed a way to fill in the gaps in my historical understanding. For this, I turned to Will and Ariel Durant’s magisterial Story of Civilization. The Durants spent over forty years writing the Story of Civilization; it runs to eleven volumes and is almost 10,000 pages long. The Story begins with Sumeria, Egypt, and Babylonia, and ends with the Napoleonic era. This is a shame, since the Durants intended to bring the series forward into the twentieth century. This was not to be, however, because (spoiler alert) they died of old age before they could finish.
Nevertheless, you cannot ask for a better historical overview than the Story of Civilization. Despite it’s massive size, I was able to finish the whole thing in about a year-and-a-half, partly because it’s such a joy to read. The Durants’ focus is on cultural history and ideas rather than a dry recitation of battles and long-forgotten boundary disputes between kings and their rivals. The style is engaging and conversational, and the books are full of the kind of humanizing (and sometimes salacious) stories that make reading history bearable. Once you read the Story of Civilization, you will be on pretty solid ground to examine more specific historical works that might cater more to your individual interests, and the series will help point you in the right directions as you pursue this research.
Another tool that helped me in reading the Story of Civilization was the excellent series of historical atlases published by Penguin. Much of the history that you read will make more sense if you can actually visualize the size and scope of an entity like the Persian Empire on paper. The cultures and histories of certain regions can also become more intelligible when you see where they stand in relation to other countries, land-masses, or the sea. Geography, as much as anything else, can be destiny.
Starting with the Pre-Socratics, Western philosophy follows a certain trajectory, with most philosophers merely building upon the scaffolding already prepared by their predecessors. You can’t really understand Fichte or Schopenhauer without reading Kant first, and Marx doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without the backdrop of Hegelianism. There are many short histories of philosophy, including one by Will Durant. Unfortunately, most of these books (including Durant’s) just aren’t very substantial.
Not so Frederick Copleston’s eleven-volume A History of Philosophy. Copleston gives an excellent chronological overview of the key ideas of every important Western philosopher, up through Sartre and Merleau-Ponty (if you want to read about more current philosophers, and particularly the post-modernists, you’ll have to supplement Copleston with other writers). One caveat: Copleston was a Jesuit—he famously debated Bertrand Russell over the existence of God—so he puts a special emphasis on Scholastic philosophers like Anselm and Aquinas. This can be a real snore-fest if you’re not a dedicated Catholic. But once you’ve read Copleston, you’ll be able to get your bearings reading almost any Western philosopher, and you’ll also know what the essential works to read are. A friend of mine who studied philosophy gave me a copy of the reading list for his dissertation program, and I also plowed through that (again, I like having a check-list). But almost everything there is mentioned (and summarized) in Copleston, so you can build your own reading plan accordingly.
As is the case with philosophy, there have been a number of authors who have prepared overviews (and reading plans) that will purport to introduce you to “the Classics.” Clifton Fadiman and John S. Majors’ The New Lifetime Reading Plan is one that’s fairly popular, and it’s not a terrible place to get started. In addition to literature, the Plan also includes some philosophy and texts relevant to the history of science, like Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn invented the concept of a “paradigm shift”). Another option is the “Great Books” curriculum compiled by St. John’s College. This consists of a four-year reading list that students must complete to earn a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts. You can find the list online, and you can read everything on it for yourself (you won’t get a degree, but you won’t spend any tuition money, either).
But perhaps the Holy Grail of literary reading lists is Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Bloom is a famous literary critic at Yale University, and he wrote The Western Canon as a riposte to the feminists, post-colonialists, and deconstructionists (Bloom dubs them the “School of Resentment”) who have hijacked the English departments of most major academic institutions. I don’t necessarily recommend that you read the book itself. For our purposes, it’s Bloom’s reading list that is the real kernel of the text. He singles out twenty-six authors who are essential to the tradition: you should read them all. Then he provides a massive list of less-important “canonical” books, arranged chronologically, that you can pick and choose from. This list is so vast that it really would take a lifetime to finish. But if you’ve made it this far, you should be able to pluck out the titles that are best suited to you.
There are other subjects you should pursue besides history, philosophy, and literature, and, similarly, you should be able to find guides that will help you navigate without getting sidetracked or bogged down in bullshit. For a while I was trying to become at least marginally conversant in Classical music (because you can’t listen to Gorgoroth all the time) and I discovered an excellent handbook in Phil G. Goulding’s Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works. Like The Western Canon, it contains lists of essential and less-essential compositions, and it’s easy to work through systematically. Creating a structure for your reading (or in the above case, listening) is the important thing; this is what you would get from a school, and it’s what you will need to maintain the discipline to keep learning no matter where you find yourself in life.
At the beginning of this essay I included a quote from the “intellectual thug” Max Cady from Martin Scorcese’s Cape Fear. Here’s another: “I’m better than you all! I can outlearn you. I can out-read you. I can out-think you. And I can out-philosophize you. And I’m gonna outlast you.” What more encouragement do you need?