Sunday, January 04, 2009

Guilt by Association in the Penny Press!

Guilt by an association, or maybe just guilt by an ass? Hard to say. In the 4 January New York Times Book Review, the normally-perceptive Jacob Heilbrunn turns in a review of Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Private Library that's meaty and thoughtful, like Heilbrunn's work usually is. He even gets at the central weakness of Ryback's book (one of them, anyway - another that bothered me and gets no mention in Heilbrunn's review is how namby-pamby Ryback is on the fact that Hitler was evil, but that's a nit we can pick another day!):

Hitler was tapped in 1919 by Capt. Karl Mayr to attend propaganda sessions at the University of Munich and to lecture to soldiers about the Bolshevik peril. As early as September of that year, in response to a soldier's written inquiry about the "Jewish Question," Hitler declared that rational anti-Semitism's "final aim must unshakably be the removal of the Jews altogether." As the historian Ian Kershaw has observed in his biography of Hitler, this response indicates that he adhered unswervingly, from the end of World War I until his final days in Berlin bunker, to nationalism and radical anti-Semitism. In short, Hitler's brooding over texts seems far more likely to have confirmed rather than created his virulent hatreds.

All well and deserved commentary, since Ryback is a little blithe on the essential cause-and-effect at the heart of his subject. but then Heilbrunn takes an amazing left-hand turn:

While being a bookworm may not be a precondition for becoming a mass murderer, it's certainly no impediment. Stalin, too, was an avid reader, boasting a library of 20,000 volumes.

As the little twerp himself might have said, Vas is das? Reading primes the soil for genocidal psychopathy? Not on my watch! This is a quietly stunning stumble on Heilbrunn's part, this equating of having lots of books with being a bookworm. As all true bookworms (a class that certainly includes Heilbrunn) know, reading is all about being open to change. The books you read lay you open; they challenge everything you are; they move around your mental furniture. The description Ryback gives of Hitler's reading - and the description Heilbrunn echoes - is similar to real reading only in the raw physical mechanics. In both cases, books are bought and pages are turned, yes, what's going on in each case is radically different. What Hitler and Stalin did with books was what they did with politics and conquered countries: they ransacked, looking to pick up things on the cheap that they already knew they liked.

What true reading is - what true bookworms do - is churchgoing. With every new book begun, we audition a new god. We test the dogma, we try out the miracles on what ails us, sometimes we proselytize, but the end goal is the exact opposite of readers like Hitler do: we search not for outside confirmation of what we already think but for some wonderful, unlooked-for unknown to reach off the page and seize us. We pray for our faith the be rewarded with the finding of something we didn't know we lacked. That's what real reading is, every single time (is it any wonder it's so addictive, to those of us who understand its real nature?).

It might not make you a better person to read this way, but it does make you wary of ever closing your mind ... because you never know what's going to reach off the page, or in when, or in what way, and real readers crave that thrill too much to wall off any of its possible avenues. Hitler and Stalin and their homicidal ilk are, in addition to everything else, so pitifully close-minded in part because they never actually read books they way books hope to be read.

Hitler may have owned a copy of Tacitus, but he was never open to seeing that author's wry deflation of all pomposity; Hitler may have owned a copy of Clausewitz, but he was never open to that author's sotto voce mockery of arrogance. And how many more millions of people would have lived to comfortable old ages in the 20th century if Hitler had been a real reader and read Horace?

It's almost too painful to think about. I'm going to assume Heilbrunn was just having a bad day (although I'll be curious to see if his essay garners any comments in next week's letters).


Sam said...

It's hard to think from this great post of the sudden surge of testimony to our current lame-duck President's alleged reading habits...

F-Stop said...

I almost emailed you that line about bookworms and mass murderers because I thought it was so funny. I should have known that you'd see it.

steve said...

I certainly believe he ASSEMBLED some books on former presidents who were disliked when leaving office ... I have no doubt he'd LIKE to read about cases where the verdict of history has been kinder than the verdict of Gallup polls ... it's just the actual ACT of reading that I tend to doubt ...

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