I don’t know who may have said this first, but someone (and many others since) has said that you can’t write well about something you don’t know well, but you may write well, although this result is never assured, about something you do know well.
Well, when I look at my own writings, at least the more than 1000 Blog posts during the past 15 years or so, I see right away that either I’m more often than not writing about subjects that I know little about, although probably not nothing. Or that I’m simply citing the words of others, much more knowledgeable than I. So writing well? Well, how would I know since there are few or no readers of my blogs who might tell me?
By the way, the only books I myself read from beginning to end are thrillers, such as those of John MacDonald, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, et al. (just finished Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye and gave it a 9 out of a possible 10.)These are not books of ideas, but page turners in which the good hero vanquishes the evil one, and at the end we, the readers, walk away, thoroughly spent but thoroughly satisfied.
On the other hand, the hundreds of works that I never read from beginning to end are works of non -fiction. Hundreds, now nearly thousands of them fill my iPhone library (probably on the Cloud), or are lined up on the IKEA shelves, now pretty much abandoned but still covering nearly all the walls of our home opposite Freedom Park, here in Tampa, the Park that Josée and I call our own Luxembourg Garden, or Luco.
So my reading realm, where I spend most of my time, reading and writing, is the non-fiction world. More and more (if that’s possible because as one grows older there are fewer hours, not more in the day) that’s where I spend my days. Not since learning how to read in school, but since that time, a bit later when I walked away from the undergraduate and graduate classes that in my life were mainly obstacles, not as they were probably meant to be spurs to my own learning.
While I don’t say that the non-fiction world is where I’m most apt to find the truth, or truths, I do say that it’s where the ideas, some truthful, some not, are found in greatest number and abundance. I would ask the paleontologists who may know such things what were the ideas of the hunter-gatherers during the ten thousands of years that preceded the first farming communities of the Middle East. How old, I would ask them, are the first ideas that man ever had. And then how would we ever know them at all if they were never written down? But of course, there are other ways, nature herself and early men being themselves books, as it were, that can also be read.
So long ago I realized that my life, certainly for the past 60 years or so, has been well steeped in an infinite series of ideas many of which have become a part of me. The interesting thing is that many of these ideas, if not most of them, are still very much alive for me. For ideas while they may be placed aside, forgotten, overlooked, don’t ever die. And the good ideas especially will continue to grow, like gravity, evolution, relativity and quantum theory, but also, and I take these good ideas from yes, from the TAO of C.S. Lewis, the power to weep is the best part of us; unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; children, the old, the infirm, the poor should be considered as lords of us all.
Returning again to C.S. Lewis who has been much on my mind lately. Lewis of course was a man of ideas. Of the three kinds of “men” he describes in his book, Present Concerns, where do I fit in? I don’t think I’m of those who live (only) for their own sake and pleasure, nor do I ever submit myself blindly to some higher claim or authority, such as a God, Kant’s categorical imperative, or even the Second Law that holds us all (not willingly anyway). And I certainly have not turned myself over to Jesus (although of course I love the man).
And I don’t for a moment see myself as in a class by myself. For there are many like me (not enough!) who are no less immersed in the life of ideas. But not a day goes by that I don’t look, if not for new ideas (because of these there are very few and I’m certainly not going to discover them myself), I do look for the endless further varieties of ideas that are already in part anyway in my notes and books.
And so it is that for a long time now I’ve known that ideas are like a food that keeps me alive. In that regard I turn immediately each day to the opinion pages of the daily news publications I read, plus to a good number of Reviews and Journals, such as the NYR, the Boston R, Harpers, the Atlantic, and 10 or 15 others, including the English publication, super rich in ideas, Prospect Magazine, (at least when I’m able to navigate all the obstacles that their subscription services place in the would be reader’s way).
This habit by the way may unhappily put a little distance between me and my wife, say at breakfast in the morning. Had I forgotten, also from the TAO, ‘that one is to Love thy wife studiously, and gladden her heart all thy life long.’ For I come to my first cup of coffee not with my wife’s heart in mind, but with my iPhone in hand and totally without an open mind. But instead I will be full of the words of one or more of the op ed columnists of the Times, Post, or WSJ that I will have just read and won’t hear what my wife Josée will be trying to say about what she has just read herself in Le Figaro or Le Point, perhaps a commentary by Sophie Coignard on Arnaud Montebourg, the Socialist presidential candidate now going about “gonflé a l’hélium.” Now that’s a kind of idea, I suppose, the Socialist candidate blown up like a helium balloon.
I ask myself why is it that I no longer read novels? I grew up with (well no, I was already into my twenties when I was reading them) the great English, French, and Russian works. Now I’d say even, without at the time knowing it, that these books, read for the most part when I was no longer in school or class were my education. And I still have them on my shelves. Perhaps the answer to my “why” question, why I no longer read novels, is because twentieth and now twentyfirst century novelists are doing nothing better, and nothing as good, as the great novelists of the past, although not having read them I really can’t say this.
But it’s also true that the novels that I’ve always enjoyed the most are those with plenty of ideas, the novels of ideas if you will. If there are few ideas in the modern novels it’s perhaps because the modern novelists are writing about people (and usually people, if I ever do get to know them, the people of John Updike and Philip Roth for example, that I care little about). They rarely write about ideas.
You might question whether the op ed writers that I read ever reach the level of real ideas, for often they do seem to be all opinion and commentary. I’ll have to reserve judgement on that. Do even my own ideas reach that level?
In any case the historian Charles Beard tells us that “the world is largely ruled by ideas, true and false.” Most likely the opinion writers want to be a part of this world of ideas, that is, part of something bigger than themselves. I know I do. As for what Charles Beard has to say I would change only his “true and false” to “good and bad.”
I might explore all this a bit further. And I might stop now. But I also might take the one word, education with all the ideas connected thereto. A topic that I myself have hundreds of ideas about.
My own thinking about education probably began, not when I was a student myself, that time when the E word had absolutely no meaning for me, but much later when my wife and I started our own school way back there when in the seventies people were doing such things, the free school movement in Berkeley for example of which we were a small part. The immediate need for our starting our own school was that we had the four children of our own and ideas about education, our own and those of others, became all important.
When I’m ready, for regarding any kind of education or learning the readiness is all, I’ll probably have more to say about this subject…