The World Needs Books
This is my last column for RealClearReligion. Next week I am moving to RealClearBooks.
I was given the new assignment by my editor, the affable and website-spawning machine Jeremy Lott. At first I questioned the change, thinking I was moving to an area that is growing, i.e. religion, to one that is on the skids, books and book publishing.
But then a couple thoughts came to mind. The first is that too many columnists become coasters, writing the same thing over and over again literally for decades (here's to you, E.J. Dionne). They become like those friends who marry their high school sweetheart. You see them every dozen years or so, and absolutely nothing has changed. Same jokes, same clothes, same politics.
No one should write the same stuff for decades. I mean, Jack Shafer, venerated media critics at Slate and now Reuters, has been making the same Rupert Murdoch and Sun Myung Moon jokes, literally, for thirty years. And I just heard that columnist Clarence Page is in trouble for almost taking $20,000 to make a speech. I had no idea Page was still writing. I gave up on his liberal boilerplate over a decade ago. So frequent movement is probably a good thing.
The second thought I had was that perhaps the world needs the slower, contemplative pace of a good book more than ever. Purely by coincidence, before I got the news that I would be moving, I was getting ready to write my religion column about a book -- Thomas Merton's The Ascent to Truth. It's an examination of the mystical and contemplative tradition in Catholicism, with a particular focus on St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Early in the book Merton, who was a Trappist monk, writes the following:
Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest. That activity, which is contemplation, is immanent and it transcends the level of sense and of discourse. Man's guilty sense for his incapacity for this one deep activity which is the reason for his very existence, is precisely what drives him to seek oblivion in exterior motion and desire.
Now, I don't want to go to far with books-as-spiritual-succor thing. There are too many similar sentiments on book bags at failing book stores all over America. I also should point out that I dislike a lot of people who identify themselves as book fanatics, and find the book section of the Washington Post, my local paper, to be virtually unreadable. There's just too much preciousness and logrolling wankery in the book business. There is also bias, which is why conservative books, even massive bestsellers, do not get reviewed in the New York Times or the Post. I hope to cover some of them in RealClearBooks. I also hope do interview some interesting writers.
I got into books early in life. My father, Joe Judge, was a journalist and the biggest book reader I have ever known. The man had read everything. In my mind and and heart I have a kind of pantheon of great books that he made us kids read and that became seminal and transformative works in my life: The Iliad, The Lord of the Rings, Dostoyevsky, the Narnia books, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, and all great works about the Civil War, one of his great passions.
There was no prouder moment than when we recommended dad a book and it claimed him. He would spend afternoons (after he retired) on the couch in the living room, ignoring everyone and everything as he traveled to a new place. I still remember him there, absolutely mesmerized by one of my recommendations, Clockers by Richard Price. Although he never loved Anne Tyler the same way I do.
My favorite book this week, along with Merton's The Ascent to Truth, is Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami. I also love graphic novels; "comic book" writers are forced to plot, and are often more skilled than writing program graduates. So I hope to cover some comics here as well.
I also should note that I'm something of a book snob. That doesn't mean I only read New Yorker writers, but that I have certain standards for the actually look and feel of books. If I don't like the font a book uses, I'll only buy it for cheap on my Kindle. I love great book cover art, which is an increasingly dying art form. I like good paper stock and nice strong ink. The good news is the the digital revolution, so maligned by the epicene employees of your local independent book store, has forced publishers to step up their game. Why by a book with a cheap cover, bad font and lousy paper when you can download it for half the price?
So, on to RealClearBooks. See you there.