This month and next, many people will lie on the sand holding "beach reading" -- light fare designed to give brains a rest as bodies bake. But one ambitious vacationer wrote me last month, complaining that he had received only a "feelgood sandbox education" in school and wanted to read some meaty stuff: "Any chance of helping with reading suggestions?"
Sure -- because that victim is not alone. Most of us have come away from a "progressive" education system that gives us a little knowledge and makes us even more dangerous than those who are unschooled and aware of deficiencies. Nevertheless, opportunity waits: Those willing to read long and deep can go far on their own.
What to read? Many recent books are terrific. On American culture, Gertrude Himmelfarb's One Nation, Two Cultures, Tom Wolfe's Hooking Up and Thomas Sowell's The Vision of the Anointed are all good reads from the past few years. On the key question of evolution vs. intelligent design that Texas educational overseers are wrestling with this week, Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance or Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box are among the books worth surveying.
But we should also keep in mind the advice of C. S. Lewis ("On the Reading of Old Books"): read at least one classic for every three new books, and in that way "keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds." So here come some suggestions concerning books written before 1700.
Which books? I'd start with the Bible. Unlike the scriptures of other religions, it portrays founders and heroes as real people and (with one exception) sinners all; it mixes theological exposition with realistic history and poetry that shows both ups and downs. Plato's dialogues are also well worth reading; I particularly like "Gorgias," the one in which Socrates uncovers the threat and exposes the pretensions of a sophist who prizes style over substance and seems uncannily like some current politicians.
From ancient Greek drama, I'd suggest "Antigone" by Sophocles, which suggests the existence of a higher law that limits the power even of kings. From the Roman world, I'd pick a very late book, the "Confessions" by Augustine of Hippo, a vivid, honest and spiritually stimulating account of the inner life of a north African bishop whose theological insights are still vivid.
A top book from the medieval world is Dante's "The Divine Comedy," an allegorical journey in which the punishments of Hell are symbols of the very sin that the lost souls embraced in life, evils chosen by their own will. At the end of that era stands "Don Quixote" by Cervantes, a parody of medieval romances that (as "The Man of La Mancha") became a hit in the modern world, since the saga of a man who insists on living in his own matrix is still both funny and thought-provoking.
Next on my list is John Milton's "Paradise Lost," lots by
Shakespeare (particularly "King Lear," "Hamlet" and "Macbeth") and John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," the allegory by a simple, uneducated repairer of pots and pans who happened to be a literary genius. I also like Christopher Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus," the legend of a man who sells his soul to the devil. In Marlowe's work, "Faustus" can repent at any time -- "Christ's blood streams in the firmament" -- but he won't, even as he is being pulled into the fires of Hell.
John Donne's "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions" includes the rich metaphors and honest spiritual musings of a great poet as he faced death. "Pensees" by Blaise Pascal includes thoughts that remain fresh and provocative. From the 18th century, the time when novels become a popular literary form, Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" (get an edition that doesn't strip out the theological flavor) and Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" (again, not the cleaned-up version but the full-bore, withering satire on Enlightenment pretensions) are outstanding.
Almost all of these are available in inexpensive paperback editions that won't be hurt by a little sand. Sunblock yes, mind block no.