Americans bought two billion books last year, more than seven for every man, woman, child, and alternatively gendered reader from sea to shining sea. The jubilant purveyors of these figures reassure us that only a quarter of those books were “mass-market paper-backs”—which is to say, typeset trash. But why the fact that a mere half-billion copies of the late Barbara Cartland’s novels, along with Tuesdays with Morrie, Memoirs of Joan Collins, and Conversations with God, are in circulation in our once-fair land should make us feel any better is not in the least clear.
The other billion and a half volumes, let us further stipulate, are no great shakes, for the most part, either. So here is a proposal fitting for our postmodern moment: Let us no longer be mesmerized by the large percentage of people who are allegedly literate. We want to know something quite different, something that would have been obvious to every figure we esteem from Heraclitus to Pope John Paul II: What amidst all these reams of print shows the condition of the people?
Materially, the answer is beyond dispute. We are wealthier, healthier, safer, and presented with greater opportunities than any group of human beings in history. And that is nothing to sneeze at. But we are also subject to large doses of unreality that our ancestors could not have indulged in—their lives would have depended on a more robust sense of the real. A great deal of our current confusion stems from, say, seeing movies and television as accurate accounts of the world. What we read is usually measured by that. The full range of human needs—spiritual, intellectual, moral, material—is submerged by useless or actually harmful information.
Much of what we count as human progress, carefully looked at, presents a mixed picture. For instance, far more people go to colleges and universities today than even 20 or 30 years ago. We have many more computer programmers, engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, and even students of the liberal arts than any society in history. But does anyone believe that we are a wiser, more virtuous, or better-educated society as a result?
Indeed, we might say, like the Frenchman who was asked if he had dined crossing the English Channel, au contraire.
The problem centers on what we are learning and have truly digested, and what has been spewed forth from serious consideration. For example, a great Christian figure like Dante is much more widely available in print today than in the past. My friend Robert Hollander of Princeton and his wife, Jean, have just published a wonderful translation of Dante’s Inferno with splendid notes as a guide. The American poet W.S. Merwin has retranslated the Purgatorio. And various other versions are available in paperback, as are comprehensive Dante Web sites at both Princeton and Dartmouth.
All this is much to the good. But if we ask ourselves whether this wealth finds a fitting audience, or whether similar tools developed for understanding the old Greek and Roman classics, Shakespeare, and a host of other great sources of our civilization have much impact, we know the answer. The bases of Western civilization are all but unintelligible to most people today, and even when they are being carefully cultivated, they have far less influence than they did when only a small percentage of the population received college-level education.
I have had firsthand experience of the problem when I have given lectures on my own guide to Dante. Even Catholics who are serious and want to learn more about the Catholic tradition tell me that they find works like the Divine Comedy impossible. At first, I thought this was merely the result of poor general education. But after further reflection, I believe that the problem is much more complicated.
At the beginning of the Ethics, Aristotle mentions that people who are not well brought up will not even be able to see the starting point of the moral life. Something similar is probably true for the right appreciation of Christian works like the Comedy. Unless we have lived in families that take seriously the notion of sin, repentance, and ultimate glory, we will probably not be able to apprehend very easily a world in which those things are woven into the very fabric of existence.
We are a literate people now in the sense that most of us can read newspapers and People magazine, and will be able to follow Hillary Clinton’s autobiographical musings when they appear. But for anything of a more elevated or lasting nature, we cannot rely on our educational system, particularly the colleges and universities where campus life, even at the most selective schools, contradicts the very premises of civilization.
Today, anyone who wants to keep the faith or even a modest appreciation for human things will have to build a firewall between the home and the culture. There are a few helps in Catholic schools, a good university here and there, and spontaneous friendships. But there is no getting around the fact that all of us now have to be severe with ourselves and our children, sharply sifting out what we read, watch, participate in. It’s a sad result in a nation that was once Christian and offers so many opportunities. But for us, it’s either the bonfire of the vanities or the vanity of vanities.