Under my byline

Rank weeds

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 23 May 2009

SchopenhauerOVERLEAF 30

One of my favourite columnists, David Brooks of the New York Times, this week wrote that CEOs need not bother to read novels. In the column, titled “In Praise of Dullness”, Brooks cited a study according to which, he says, successful CEOs are “humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls” — dependable plodders. The readerly advantages of “greater psychological insight, a feel for human relationships, a greater sensitivity toward their own emotional chords” are useless for CEOs.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th-century German philosopher, wouldn’t have thought that business and reading have anything to do with each other anyway. In a typically uncompromising essay “On Reading and Books”, he suggests that reading well is the preoccupation of a lifetime. Where business (and here I presume, not paraphrase) involves working with people and things as they are, reading well, to Schopenhauer, requires a deliberate disregard for the short-lived convictions of the present.

“According to Herodotus,” Schopenhauer writes, using a much-trafficked anecdote, “Xerxes wept at the sight of his army, which was too extensive for him to scan, at the thought that a hundred years hence not one of all these would be alive. Who would not weep at the thought in looking over a big catalogue that of all these books not one will be in existence in ten years’ time?” (Mind you, this is in the early 19th century.)

“It is the same in literature as in life,” Schopenhauer goes on. “Wherever one goes one immediately comes upon the incorrigible mob of humanity. It exists everywhere in legions; crowding, soiling everything, like flies in summer. Hence the numberless bad books, those rank weeds of literature which extract nourishment from the corn and choke it.” Like him, many have since complained that “author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces” to defraud the public of its money, by selling them bad books and building up a profitable cult of the new.

It’s impossible to disagree, but being in the privileged position of a reviewer one is also pinned down by the flood. Many bad or unimportant books pass under our noses, with some of which we must engage. So Schopenhauer’s instruction is very attractive: forget the new, choose the best; after all, only the fittest have survived (this, pre-Darwin).

But there’s more: read too much, and it is worse than not having read at all. “When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.” Give it enough time and you will forget how to think on your own. Therefore, savour, don’t gorge. “Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid. For to read in every spare moment, and to read constantly, is more paralysing to the mind than constant manual work, which, at any rate, allows one to follow one’s own thoughts.”

This too I agree with wholeheartedly. One of the most appealing essays I have ever read is Matthew B Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft” in the New Atlantis of summer 2006, in which the author argues that manual work, rather than white-collar slavery, is an essential element of a happy and fulfilled life. “By all means, go to college,” Crawford summarises. “In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid.”

As with craft, so with language: “This I know,” says Schopenhauer, “directly we stop learning the old languages… a new class of literature will spring up, consisting of writing that is more barbaric, stupid, and worthless than has ever yet existed”.

A severe judgement; but if dependable plodders are really what the business world needs, please, aspiring leaders — do pick up the latest bestseller.

Matthew B Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft(Read an e-text of Schopenhauer’s essays, in English.  And I’ve just discovered that Matthew Crawford has a book out now with the same title as his essay: here’s where to find it.)

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