The Dec/Jan 2009 issue of Bookforum has an interesting interview with Timothy Ryback about his book on Hitler’s Private Library. (In Pierre Bayard’s readability system as discussed in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, to which I will be introducing my students in the sophomore seminar in the Spring, Ryback’s is an HB+: a book I’ve heard of and have a good impression of.) Ryback was able to identify a number of Hitler’s most personally significant books from more than a thousand housed at the Library of Congress; and prompted by Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” he was able to use them to figure out some things about Hitler as a reader and a thinker.
Most notably, Ryback found that “Hitler was animated not by the excitement of the autodidact discovering a vast world of knowledge but by the intellectual insecurity of a high school dropout who needed to overpower everyone else in the room.” (I know plenty of Ph.D.s with the same insecurity, but the point is we know this type.) Hitler’s genius was for collecting very broad, very shallow knowledge. He liked encyclopedias. He was not a critical reader or thinker; he took what he read at face value and lumped everything together without distinction. In conversation he was a dazzling reciter of facts, constructing detailed but superficial comparisons by juxtaposition.
So far so good – a nice triangulation of something we already knew or at least assumed about the guy. Perhaps the surprise is that Hitler was a compulsive reader; we might have thought him even more shallowly absorbed in his own wacky thoughts and the echo-chamber of his cronies than that. But here’s where Ryback seems to get into some trouble. Ryback is an old-school liberal artist and bookworm – one imagines corduroy, tweed and elbow patches – who struggles to imagine how reading could not be positively transformative. “‘We believe literary reading is an ennobling enterprise,’ he says. ‘The underlying assumption is that we are better people for reading. What’s shocking about this is that we had a man who read to fuel exactly the opposite, everything that was destructive to intellectual processes. Out of this imbibing emerged such evil that it flies in the face of what we believe reading actually does.'”
Not so fast with that “we,” Tim. We’re not all congregants in your religion; books do not light up all rooms with their halos. If books are sacred things you might be right, but if they’re human things, not so much. And sure enough, books are read, and first written, by human beings, who are what they are before they write or read any particular book. Good humans usually write good books, and bad humans generally write bad books, although the reverse can sometimes be true. Good humans tend to prefer to read good books, and bad humans gravitate toward bad ones (Hitler was a big fan of Henry Ford’s and Madison Grant’s racist tracts); but also good humans may read bad books well, and bad humans may read good books badly. Nor is it a simple thing to sort out ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with respect to humans or books. One needs a moral system for that, and moral systems are contested.
We are riddled with confirmation bias, hard-wired for jamming new data into old schemata. Of the three basic kinds of analytical thinking – habit, belief, and theory – only theory is readily subject to disconfirmation by new information. I sometimes tell students that the way to tell if your theory is a good one is to track your surprise. A good theory will prepare you for reality, a bad one will leave your head spinning every time something that doesn’t fit happens. By this standard, the theory about the ennobling powers of literary reading is a bad one; but of course, if it’s really a “belief,” as Ryback says, and not a theory, his surprise will motivate no substantive transformation of his thinking. And sure enough, his own reading will not have ennobled (or better, enlightened) him, either.