Confessions of a Philistine


One of the disadvantages of graduating from college is that no one makes you read good books any more. We still aspire to read goods books. Most of us even continue to buy good books. We just don't read them. Or we read the first chapter, skim the last chapter, and call it quits. We are closet Philistines.

Even as I write those words, I fear revealing my intellectual sloth. Maybe I am wrong in assuming that George F. Will and my wife are the only people in the world who read Henry James for fun. Maybe my friends really do browse through Montaigne over their after-dinner brandy. But I suspect that we closet Philistines constitute a vast mob. We spend a large part of every working day reading and writing. We get tired of thinking by nightfall and are unable to handle anything more abstract than Travis McGee of John D. MacDonald's mystery novels. But if this goes on too long, the mind begins to sprout weeds and we can't even enjoy Travis McGee any more because of the guilt.

As a writer on social policy, I have an advantage—I can define my next project to include the books I ought to be reading anyway. As Tom Sawyer found with fences and whitewashing, in a reverse sort of way, this dramatically changes the nature of the task. Reading the Federalist Papers after dinner is a dreaded chore. Reading the Federalist Papers from nine to noon in the guise of a morning's work, for which one is getting paid, is positively sybaritic. But this cannot work for everyone, since (thankfully) very few people make their living writing about social policy. The question remains: How to exercise the postgraduate adult mind without having to work too hard?

The answer is to come to terms with your limitations. It is no use setting up some regimen ("I will read two chapters of _______ every night") for reading improving books. If the improving book isn't fun to read, you are going to drop it. The task is not to make yourself read good books that are tough reading but to find good books that are fun. For me, they come in two types. Either they are books that take me vividly and anecdotally into someone else's world, or they take me into someone else's mind.

The books that open up worlds are the most obviously fun. It so happens, for example, that Timothy Ferris's The Red Limit taught me much about modern astrophysics. But I kept picking it up at every free moment because it told me about the pleasures and intrigues of being an astrophysicist. George Gilder's Visible Man is an invaluable study of innercity culture, one of the best we have, but it is also a vicarious odyssey for every middle-class white reader who wonders how it would be to venture into that terra incognita. William Barrett's The Truants let me be a voyeur on the exotic world of the Partisan Review crowd, and almost by accident I learned a great deal about the American left at mid-century.

The history I read also has this world-opening, storytelling quality. That's why I read Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia avidly, whereas I am still only aspiring to read Bernard Bailyn's more profound scholarship on the same topic. Was Fawn Brodie right about Thomas Jefferson in her "intimate" biography of him? I don't know; but I do know that the only reason I can stay with Dumas Malone's more inaccessible Jefferson is that I read Brodie first. Right now, I am absorbed in Kenneth Stampp's account of American slavery, The Peculiar Institution. Don't worry about admiring the painstaking scholarship; read it because it conjures up the antebellum South like no novel you've ever read.

I take the same pragmatic selectivity to books of ideas. I know I am supposed to read Friedrich Hayek and John Rawls, and I do, but only during working hours. Much as I admire Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty and respect (with dismay) Rawls's A Theory of Justice, there is no way I am going to curl up with them for a good read, whereas I know that I can pick up something by Thomas Schelling and have some fun. How tough can it be to read a book like his Micromotives and Macrobehavior, which begins with the author wondering why nobody at one of his lectures sat in the first 12 rows of the auditorium? And concludes with a chapter entitled "Hockey Helmets, Daylight Saving, and Other Binary Choices"? With Schelling, you are spending the evening with a questing mind playing with puzzles, and you barely realize how much you are learning about game theory or economics.

I do the same thing with Marvin Harris on anthropology, Stephen Jay Gould on natural history, and James Q. Wilson on crime. I do the same thing with Plato, even as I am terrorized by Aristotle. In each case, the author takes me along while he sets up the problem. There is no seamless revelation of truths, but a sense of the journey. As importantly, the author lets some personality through.

If there is any doubt about the kind of book I mean, consider the archetype, Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I don't care how much you think you already agree (or disagree) with Nozick or even if you have already read the book. Read it again, a few pages at a time, for the fun of it. He is dealing with the most abstruse questions in political philosophy. The argument is rigorous. And yet it is an enormously entertaining book—not just because of Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose and the rest of his allegorical creations, but because every page is so impregnated with the personality of Robert Nozick, the only philosopher I know guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.

Thus the list at the left, not necessarily of the best or most profound books in their respective fields (though some of them may well be), but of mind-exercising books that you may actually read, cover to cover.

Charles Murray, a senior research fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, is the author of Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 (Basic Books, 1984).

What Charles Murray Reads

The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals
William Barrett. Anchor, 1983

Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787
Catherine Drinker Bowen. Little, Brown, 1966

Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History
Fawn M. Brodie. Norton, 1974; Bantam, 1981 (paper)

On High Steel: The Education of an Ironworker
Mike Cherry. Quadrangle, 1974

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn
Evan S. Connell. North Point Press, 1984

The Red Limit: The Search for the Edge of the Universe
Timothy Ferris. Revised Edition. Quill, 1983

The Life and Times of Chaucer
John Gardner. Knopf, 1977; Vintage, 1978 (paper)

Visible Man: A True Story of Post-Racist America
George Gilder. Basic, 1978

The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History
Stephen Jay Gould. Norton, 1980, 1982 (paper)

Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture
Marvin Harris. Random House, 1974

Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind
Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey. Warner, 1982

Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties
Paul Johnson. Harper and Row, 1983, 1985 (paper)

Anarchy, State, and Utopia
Robert Nozick. Basic, 1974

Micromotives and Macrobehavior
Thomas C. Schelling. Norton, 1978

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
Jonathan D. Spence. Viking, 1984

The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South
Kenneth M. Stampp. Knopf, 1956; Vintage, 1964 (paper)

Studs Terkel. Pantheon, 1974; Avon, 1982 (paper)

Thinking About Crime
James Q. Wilson. Revised Edition. Basic, 1983