If You Don’t Read Books…

Is the current bloodshed in Syria the final battle of the First World War; or the first battle of the Third? And related to that, why is the House of Saud the center of the Arab world, and not the Hashemite Kingdom descendant from the Sharif of Mecca? Do you know where the word ‘assassin’ comes from, and why a death cult hidden in a fortress high in the Persian mountains caused the Mongol invasion of Baghdad, the sacking of the House of Wisdom and the end of the Islamic Golden Age? Is Iran to be trusted, or are they engaged in Kitman with the United States, with us playing the role of the “miserable blind man shut off from the true path whose existence (we) do not suspect?” Why does socialism always fail, in spite of making us feel so good; and why do intellectuals ignore this? What is Austrian economics; and why are the “Austrians” never part of macro-economic syllabi? And what were Hugo Chavez’s hemispheric plans and how were they inspired by a 200 year old legend?

If you don’t read books, you won’t know.

That is the contention of Peggy Noonan’s commencement address at Catholic University in Washington DC. “History is human,” Noonan says in her eloquent, folksy fashion. “History is not dry dates and data, and it is not gossip or cheap stuff, it is human beings acting – sometimes heroically, sometimes inadequately or wickedly – in real time.”

True. But, of course this begs the more important question – why do you need to know? Wouldn’t we all be just as happy watching episodes of “Two and a Half Men” with a pint of ice-cream before going to bed? Noonan’s answer, “If you cannot read deeply you will not be able to think deeply. If you cannot think deeply you will not be able to lead well.” Because, “…all of you deep down, in whatever areas and whatever ways, hope to lead.”


The truth of the matter is that modern universities are not in the business of leader-making. Our leaders these days come from other places, or other times; because our institutions of higher learning have turned their energy to licensing managers to serve as the officers of our managerial oligarchy. According to Patrick Dennan, students these days are “…the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.” But why, why are our ivory towers these days busy molding their charges into perfect “know-nothings”; devoid of opinion and culture and preference and innovation and curiosity? The answer is because we are preparing our young men and women to slip seamlessly into the massive bureaucracies of our colossal planned world. We are training them to receive the highest marks from the human resources department; for outstanding “360 degree” reviews and to have the perfect habits necessary to be highly effective. In managerial bureaucracies there are no leaders, because there is no need for leadership. Inertia will do; momentum – because the direction is no longer in doubt, at least so say the elites. Its effective managing we need. The inhabitants of “the end of history” can be found sharply dressed in perfectly pressed suits sitting for just the right amount of time in their pristine cubicles before lunch, eating a turkey wrap in their immaculate cafeterias.

My main contention, no offense to Peggy, is that we all need to stop telling the “know-nothings” that sitting anxiously through four years of “safe space” discussions and “anti-racist sit-ins” entitles them to lead. We must tell them the truth – at best they will be the next generation of managers; for that is the certification to which they are preparing. Leave the expectation to leadership to those who are willing to say uncomfortable things and think uncomfortable thoughts – to be sure many of which are, indeed, found in books.

So my suggestion, not that anybody should care. Read books – not because you want to be a leader, but because you want to understand, to make common cause with the world around you. Because you can’t really feel without having read Robert Frost. You can’t truly love without knowing Emily Dickinson. You can’t really sorrow ignorant of Poe. And you can’t really believe without reading the Bible. Read because you have a natural curiosity – because you do not accept the version of things you are given by other know-nothings on the assembly-line of your education. Because enlightenment is found along the rolling road of wonder, a road paved by words in print upon a sea of white. Because nothing is new under the sun; and because castles are layers upon layers upon layers of stories, like Peggy says, of humans. Blood and sweat and the acrid stench of fear; violence and defeat and victory – from those who were not content to be managers.

Then, whether you lead or not, your lives will be enriched by the only hunger that becomes more voracious the more you feed it. The hunger to know.


An Old Library in Timbuktu

No, you probably won’t be leaders. You won’t be writers either – that requires way too much failure and self-doubt than the know-nothing’s can muster. But you might very well be line managers for the new world order. If you read books – you’ll begin to understand why.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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11 Responses to If You Don’t Read Books…

  1. mike mayerson says:

    No Mr. Hirst, the know nothings (great phrase) will not read books. They have been trained by the world of cell phones and tv to expect instant gratification and they don’t possess the patience to read books. Notice how tv commercials and programming has gone to instant flashes of images instead of a person talking (the tv people know about the lack of attention span).


    • True story. It presages a hard time to come. Esp if they are our “leaders”.


    • Kevin Dickson says:

      Getting a degree was something always on my Bucket list. I quit school in the 10th grade to go to work. My family was one of those families that put the FUN in dysfunctional. We were happily weird but totally broke. I ended up in the military and found a future as an electron technician the manager.

      At 63 I entered the university for the first time,

      So let me share with you my first hand experience with these kids. First…..they are doing a million productive things with those iPhone’s that you clearly do not understand. They are voracious consumers of information. When I go to the Library to work on projects…from 8AM to 9PM…it is standing room only. They love to talk about politics and world events and a hungry for unique insights. They read constantly…..online and off. Many of these kids could hold their own with Plato or Aristotle.

      True….much of what they learn is a tad negative but how does one put a positive spin on things like human slavery and or wiping out billions of Buffalo so that native Americans have no option left but the reservations. These things did happen. As long as they are taught in the proper context……knowledge doesn’t hurt anyone.

      Don’t underestimate this generation of kids. They are far better than we give them credit for. They don’t need our condescension. They need leadership. We really can’t blame them for being where WE led them.


  2. “[E]nlightenment is found along the rolling road of wonder, a road paved by words in print upon a sea of white. Because nothing is new under the sun; and because castles are layers upon layers upon layers of stories, like Peggy says, of humans. Blood and sweat and the acrid stench of fear; violence and defeat and victory – from those who were not content to be managers.”

    This is perfect.



  3. Guildofcannonballs says:

    History is not people acting in real time, that is not true. Churchill taught me that because of his rhetoric and I have never read any of his books, although I have encouraged others to read The Art of The Deal as Patton learned us to Rommel.

    What books lead you to that conclusion, after Noonan first mucked up what the term acting means in relation to lives spent and recorded and many other things in addition to acted, as maybe you ought burn them.

    Easier to lament my style I guess, huh.


  4. pjlazos says:

    Love this post. (BTdubs, meant to get back to you the other day about the Ayn Rand thing, but I lost the thread and then there’s the time factor. Don’t know whether I misread the quote or not but my take on Ayn is that she was a brilliant writer, but a bit puerile in her world view at least when speaking of mankind at its current level of consciousness.)
    As for books, 📚 I believe the downfall of any great society begins the moment people stop being curious and simply follow instructions. Reading has opened so many worlds for me. Sadly, only one of my three children likes to read despite all my recommendations, and while I take it as a personal failure, I have not given up. The cell phone has turned out to be my biggest adversary and that’s a heck of a behemoth to fight with all its Snapchat and Twitter and Facebook distractions. 😔


    • Indeed – most Americans don’t read anymore. And we’re sort of literate still, most people in Mali for example graduate from high school without ever having read a book.


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