Saturday, November 8, 2008

Reading for Survival: Beyond the Frippery

I happened across an essay by John D. MacDonald this summer entitled, "Reading for Survival" written only months before his death in December of 1986. I've been mulling the concepts over, filtering them through my own experiences, readings, and understandings, working to enlarge my focus of so many things touched upon within these pages. MacDonald's essay is not the epitome of philosophic contemplation -- in fact, his own description of the essay reads, "the mountain has labored and brought forth a small, mangy, bad-tempered mouse of 7200 words." But buried within the sometimes tedious examples and pontification glitter gems of inescapable brilliance.

Although MacDonald struggled long over this essay, he ended up (upon the advice of Jean Trebbi) crafting a Socratic dialogue between Travis McGee and Meyer, fictional characters of his detective series, in order to communicate his philosophic beliefs. It's a short read, and I recommend it to anyone who considers herself a "reader" or "educated" or "passionate" in the best, liberal arts sense of the word.

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." Mark Twain

In my combating elitism post, I indicated that certain self-entitled "educated elites" are tedious and self-important. Stu rebutted with the observation that there are those who disdain all educated individuals as lacking common sense. I think both statements contain truth. However, MacDonald's essay reveals that education lies not within a degree but within reading.

Meyer, who serves as a sort of educated moral compass for Travis throughout the mystery series, states, "I would not demand that a man read ponderous tomes, or try to read everything -- any more than I would expect our ancestor to examine every single leaf on a plant he remembers as being poisonous. I would expect that in his reading -- which should be wide ranging, fiction, history, poetry, political science -- he would acquire the equivalent of a liberal arts education and acquire also what I think of as the educated climate of mind, a climate characterized by skepticism, irony, doubt, hope, and a passion to learn more and remember more" (25).

Meyer goes on to note that "common sense is uncommon, dear boy. And in more cases than you could imagine, it comes from reading widely, and from remembering" (31).

While Socrates writes, "The life unexamined is not worth living," Meyer observes that "the life unexamined is the life unlived" (26). It is only through examining and drawing relationships between and contemplating and discussing and mulling over ideas that we truly come to life. "Complex ideas and complex relationships are not transmitted by body language, by brainstorming sessions, by the boob tube or the boom box. You cannot turn back the pages of a television show and review a part you did not quite understand. You cannot carry conversations around in your coat pocket" (25). While technological advances of the last decade have changed the literal truth of MacDonald's claim, the philosophical truth is inescapable. As a stereotypical whole, we tend to eschew the complex and embrace the simple.

This is glaringly evident in MacDonald's final warning to the nonreaders of our nation. Although I have not verified the figure, Meyer quotes an article in Psychology Today, saying that, "sixty million Americans, one out of three adults...cannot read well enough to understand a help-wanted ad" (25). Epidemic illiteracy is devastating not only because of what it means to our economy or our status in the world or the future of our children, but especially because of the multiplying impact it has upon every aspect of our lives, from the minutiae to the enormous. "The nonreader in our culture, Travis, wants to believe. He is the one born every minute. The world is so vastly confusing and baffling to him that he feels there has to be some simple answer to everything that troubles him" (32).

I do not agree with every statement or hypothesis or theory espoused by MacDonald within Reading for Survival. I believe MacDonald would be disappointed if I did. His intention was to enter the dialogue, offer a messy collection of suppositions, thoughts, and claims, provide pieces of evidence, and invite the rest of us to respond, refute, endorse, embrace, argue over, contemplate, and...most importantly...enter into the dialogue ourselves.