Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Walter Russell Mead Gazes Into his Father's Glass-covered Bookcase

I've just now come across Walter Russell Mead's "How to Get Smart" reading list, and I have to say that  it's weird in a way that makes me wonder if it is not self-parody.  I mean--I'll grant him The Economist and Financial Times.  I do (audio) read The Economist every week.  I'm not a regular reader of the FT; I probably should be, and my only defense is that I got friends who send me lots of links.  To be charitable, I'll also grant him Milton, although we might quarrel over particulars.

But beyond that--I believe Mead's father was an Episcopal bishop, and I wonder if perhaps we are gazing with admiration at the glass-covered walnut bookcase in papa's study, as it appeared to the young Walter so many years ago.  The contents are arrayed in fine buckram bindings that make excellent decoration but as to actual reading--let's  just say if this weren't Mead talking, I'd suspect he hadn't really read any of them: it's full of the books most often recommended by people who haven't read them.

I'll grant that Mead is far too avid, energetic and responsive a reader for such Shennanigans but still consider:  The Bible, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Wealth of Nations, The Federalist Papers.  Every one of these has its merits, but not one needs the kind of reverent attention that Mead seems to think it deserves.

Start with the Bible.  As the anthology of a culture it is a remarkable achievement; as a documentary on the history of Christianity it is indispensable.  Mead writes with obvious admiration that Harry S Truman read it five times during his presidency, cover to cover.   Five times, no kidding?  The world is coming unglued and our president is laboring away through Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Chronicles, the minor prophets,  the pseudo-Pauline letters, the Apocalypse?  I think there is a lot to admire about Truman but in the end he's  still a country boy with all the artless gullibility the term implies.

As to Gibbon--let's be honest, we're among friends here:  Gibbon is the most overrated name in the Western Canon (saving only Thackeray, and I'm not sure Thackeray even ranks any more).  He;s not negligible: Gibbon's History is a prodigy of scholarship, and his sensibility has a distinctive tang.  But after a couple of chapters, if you don't simply lose patience and set it aside (most do), you come to realize that he's a one-trick pony, telling the same fussy and fastidious little joke over, and over, and over.  Or so it seems; I did read more than two chapters,  although I can't claim to have read more than the first book myself.  But I read enough to come away with a profound sense that this is a guy with whom I do not want to be locked in an elevator, and that nothing in the later volumes would be likely to change my judgment.   BTW if you accept my suggestion on two chapters,  the obvious choices are chapters 15 and 16, on the rise of Christianity.

As to Adam Smith--now I did read Wealth of Nations cover to cover.  And let me tell you, it's not necessary.  Smith is valuable and insightful and actually quite likable, even at length; much misunderstood,  though less so now perhaps than 50 years ago.  But he's a natterer.  Is my recollection right that he dictated to an amanuensis? I can't imagine how s/he kept from falling asleep.   A good 150 pages ought to be enough.  And do skip the history of silver prices.  Afterthought: Theory of Moral Sentiments is instructive and satisfying (evidently he wrote it sitting down) although I doubt that would it get much attention were it not seen as a pendant to WN.

Now, the Federalist Papers--as a cultural artifact, they are unbeatable but as a text they are what you might expect for something composed on the fly and in the heat of battle--transitory, uneven, and sometimes flat wrong.   Among serious students, my guess is that as much as half of the commentary focuses on just one item: No. 10, on the meaning of "faction."  Maybe throw in No. 14, as a defense of the federal convention; No. 39 on "federalism" and No. 51 on checks and balances (all by Madison, be it noted; go look for Hamilton and pretty soon you find him (in No. 84) arguing against a separate bill of rights).  All good and important stuff, but if you are looking for a font of pure wisdom, you can do better.

Aside from these four, Mead throws in Macaulay's History of England, and I cannot imagine whatever possessed him to put Macaulay in this otherwise august company.  As an exemplar of what is best and worst in Victorianism I suppose Macaulay is hard to beat, but as an  historian, he's the Victorian Trotsky--glib, facile, at  his worst when most self-congratulatory and at his best (and funniest) when he is most unfair.  If Mead wanted  truly wise British historian, why not Hume?  Or as a judge of character, Clarendon?  Or for a more nuanced and defensible presentation of the case for grand whiggery, why not Macaulay's own great-nephew, GM Trevelyan?

Come to think of it, if what he wants is ringing drama with casual regard for the truth, why not go the whole way and take Shakespeare's history plays?  Defamers of the Duke of Marlborough say that was the only history he ever learned, I say he could do worse.   If you still want to read Macaulay, go read "Horatius at the Bridge."

Yada yada, you get the idea.  Where Mead comes up with Carlyle and , I cannot possibly imagine: if he wants a "social novel," he might as well cut straight to Middlemarch; if he wants a critic of the French Revolution, he'd be better off with Taine.   I suppose the only thing left for me to do is to suggest a "get smart" list of my own and don't think I'm not tempted.   Start with The Economist again of course, okay on Milton.  Add a dash of Hume.  If you must have an American classic, maybe Lincoln's Second Inaugural.  Then Johnson.  And Thucyd--but now, I am veering into the purlieus of self-parody on my own.

1 comment:

New York Crank said...

Oi, another Duke of Gloucester partisan. ("Scribble scribble scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?")

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank