My family has a Christmas tradition of giving books, which sometimes contain wisdom therein. These books are not all necessarily *recommended* but they have inspired good thinking about race, politics, faith, human nature, and the good life.
Up From Slavery, by Booker T Washington. Two ideas stand out. First are his thoughts on emancipation. We probably underestimate the enormity of the task that Washington set for himself. He dedicated his life to the “uplift of our race” from the cruel depredations of slavery. What it took the white man hundreds of years to learn – the habits and conditions of political liberty – the former slave would have to learn, he says, in a single lifetime. But Booker was an optimist. He believed in himself, in God, in American ideals and in his own people. Second, and relatedly, he was profoundly influenced and really quite impressed by the many Christians who spent their lives in tireless efforts to help former slaves learn to read, find jobs, and provide for their families. Washington witnessed an explosion of new institutions (schools, orphanages, work/study arrangements, etc) all dedicated to helping former slaves sort life out after 1865, not only in the south but throughout the nation. And a third, bonus take: Washington very well expresses the violation of his dignity in and through the evil of slavery. Interesting also is the way in which he responded to that violation in his personal, daily habits as a free man. He had to take measures that would remind himself of his own worth and high calling, in a time when nobody thought he would amount to much. In some very memorable passages, he talks about the importance of personal grooming and cleanliness. He would take baths anywhere (icy-cold rivers!) and at anytime (five in the morning!) so that he could feel like a human being and not chattel. His was a fascinating and instructive life.
Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, by Zena Hitz. A review of this wonderful book will be forthcoming in some famous publication, no doubt. Hitz provides an original argument for, and personal testimony of, the importance of liberal education in a human life. Liberal study is quite simply the intellectual pursuit of the useless things: pursuit of knowledge that is worthwhile for its own sake. This can be knowledge about the natural world, but also knowledge of God and human beings. She sees much to criticize in contemporary culture, particularly our compulsive addiction to technology which tends to flatten and distort our perception of our life and the world that we inhabit. It robs our wonder and makes the world utterly uninteresting. We are bored, not only with other people and ourselves, but with thinking itself – the thing that most distinguishes a human being from an animal.
She also criticizes our absorption in money-making as an end unto itself. Again we do so compulsively, unthinkingly, not realizing how the love of money (as an end) affects our life and relationships. Alternately, we can get caught in a vicious cycle of sorts. We work so that we can get more money, and use the money to buy ourselves leisure, but use our leisure in order to work harder and more efficiently. It is a circle of gruesome meaninglessness – lots of hurrying, lots of worrying, but never an abiding in something that goes beyond the (pretty basic) need to provide for ourselves. I am all for commerce and I think we underrate the almost unbelievable rise in living standards brought about by modern free markets. But we have undoubtedly paid a price for it – a price that cannot be quantified, being damage to our souls, but is nonetheless felt.
How a Second-Grader Beats Wall Street, by Allan Roth. This book isn’t as cheesy as it sounds. It’s actually quite a gem if you’re interested in investing and wise money management. Roth shows that, when it comes to money, adults are much more irrational than children. We see the acquiring of money as the good thing itself, whereas children see money as a means to other things – buying a good book, or a set of baseball cards, or a ticket to a movie. One does find some uncanny parallels between Hitz and Roth. The attitude that the kid has (in this case Roth’s son Kevin) enables them to make sounder investment choices and gives them the temperament for the proper stewardship of money, even though kids also lack other traits that are necessary for success in the modern marketplace – such as delayed gratification. So, if ye wish to be rich, be ye like little children? A worthwhile read.
John Wesley’s Journal, by John Wesley. This, the abridged one-volume version of Wesley’s journal, records the many events of his long and interesting life. Wesley was a cofounder of Methodism and one of the great evangelists of all time. His life really was a missionary one, and so largely a case of strategy, ambition, opportunism, and spiritual one-damn-thing-after-another. Wesley escaped imprisonment in Savannah, Georgia after he refused communion to the daughter of a politically connected landowner. One wonders what the daughter did – Wesley does not say. He resolved to speak his mind plainly at all times, a quality that surely made him enemies. But the power of his preaching was undeniable, as was his endurance to travel constantly in search of a new audience. But Methodism was a social project even as it was one that brought people into a personal encounter with Christ. When the Wesleys moved in and preached, thousands of people changed their behavior and the public effects of that were noticeable. He writes (I paraphrase: from memory), “It has been one year since we first preached at X town. The town is much changed. There is no longer rowdiness and lewdness in the streets, nor cursing to be heard. People are kind and civil to one another – they have stopped their brawling. We opened a school and found work for many of the local poor.”