Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Most Influential Books

We thank John Lewis once again. In the midst of a very bold and interesting "rant" below, he included this fascinating list from the Library of Congress. The most influential books seem to be "self-help" in the sense of "how in the hell am I supposed to live" books. My favorite self-help book is Walker Percy’s LOST IN THE COSMOS: THE LAST SELF-HELP BOOK.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Who can tell us what this LoC "survey" was exactly?

Steve: I don't know anything about the particulars of this survey. I posted it to show a discrepancy. Here is a survey that purports to show books that have been influencial/meaningfull in peoples lives. Now while all the academic types were busy slinging mud at each other, while discussing truth and beauty...and pontificating on feminism and the dead white male cannon, basically arguing what should and shouldn't be in the cannon...what is or is not meaningful...regular folks picked up the Bible or Atlas Shrugged and somehow found meaning in them. It is absolutely amazing. Regular folk also found meaning in a lot of self-help type books...which was a point I touched upon in my "lost" rant.

In my "lost" rant what I did was contrast the type of "meaning" and understanding of "meaning" that exists in a discussion between people talking about Tolstoi and say Jane Austen...or Charlotte Bronte...as the case may be and a much more common sense/utilitarian meaning of meaning/ influence such as having an impact upon my life/choices/behavior.

As Dr. Knippenburg says the greatest challenge to Civic Literacy are students who say: "As one student put it to me, nothing she has ever done has required her to know in what century Jamestown was settled." But certainly this critique can be applied to almost all aspects of the humanities in general...and what is more even if this critique is not made openly...unless the student comes to have a deep appreciation for the material...odds are it will be "filed and forgoten." I really agree with Dr. Knippenburg's essay...because it is true and he is getting at the meat and potatoes of the problem. So you have this rich philosophical discourse and your rugby buddy asks you: Dude, do you think that Descart(es) guy...like Meditations on something (First Philosophy) will be on the test? If I make some joke about the evil genius...my rugby budy will think I am talking about the professor!

Now you can go ahead and teach Moby Dick and Tolstoi...but only a certain type of person is going to find meaning in those works. Most people are going to wade into a few pages of War and Peace and give up. Which in my opinion means that you beg the question about Human nature being attracted to the sorts of Universal questions that you claim are laid out in a great books cannon, except that this objection is also found within the cannon...very little that can be conceived isn't already written.

To the common man "meaning" is "influence" which is utility. A thing is meaningfull/true if it is usefull. This is basic John Dewey, who may or may not be in the cannon(I am not endorsing Dewey I am simply making the observation that his philosophy provides a good descriptive account of meaning or influence as it relates to the Library of Congress list.)

Now Humanity departments can try to ground meaning in a more spiritual sense and literary critics are free to establish their own perculiar "ontological hierachies" for what counts and doesn't count as high literature or philosophy...but there is nothing that says that anyone is going to listen to them beyond absorbing what they spout so that it can be dumped on a test.

On the positive side I think this list of influential books is not altogether a bad one...If the top 100 academics in america(leaving aside for the moment how the hell that would or could be measured!)came up with a top 10 influential list, and I was forced to read five books from each list. I am inclined off hand to say that I would prefer to read the Bible, Atlas Shrugged, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone with the Wind.

My question to Humanity departments nationwide by what standard is your cannon more "meaningfull"?

As an interesting side note I believe Hillary Clinton claims both the Bible and Atlas Shrugged as influential books as does Clarence Thomas and Alan Greenspan co-authored parts of Ayn Rand's Capitalism the unknown ideal.

This is not to give the final word on "meaningfulness" or philosphical depth, but the question humanity departments will have to answer if they do not wish to be relegated to the scrap pile...is the old line about a tree falling in a woods...In what sense can something be said to be meaningful if it does not have an influence? Psalm 119:11 says: "Thy words have I hidden in my heart that I might not sin against thee."

I think it is interesting that of all the books around today the two that command the most open hostility are Atlas Shrugged, the Bible and perhaps the Koran...but that would make three...quite possibly in that order or perhaps reversed depending on who you ask. Now certainly these books are hostile to each other, and the influence of the three is no doubt responsible for a great deal of the hostility between them, but there is a fourth school between them that is just as hostile to all three: that of the cosmopolitan relativist. I think Dinesh Disouza was discredited for basically equating the cosmopolitan relativist with the Cultural Left and then focusing the hate of the Koran not against an opposing truth claim(Christianity/Bible) or (Liberty/Rand) but against an opposing no-truth claim. Interesting construction, Insane construction or Dangerous Idea? too simplified(probably)?

John is on to something--all the influential self-help books mean to be effective antidotes to rootless, cosmopolitan relativism--or to the no-truth claim. I don't agree with all his details and still thinks Dinesh's new book deserves its discrediting.

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