When my great uncle Amon Corn returned to North Georgia from Europe after World War II, one of the civic projects he led was to bring a library to his community. The region had nothing like the wealth it enjoys now, but he and others worked tirelessly to raise the funds needed to give people of the area access to something they had little of: good books.
Amon’s generation, and even my father’s, studied under high school teachers who had rarely completed college. Though the local people still maintained an ancient knowledge of agriculture and wilderness survival, their schooling had been limited for generations.
Going to Europe as a soldier must have been an awakening for men of such rudimentary circumstances. From an isolated life of woods, fields, mountain dialect and community churches, they were suddenly thrust into a Europe of architectural marvels, ancient monuments and majestic cathedrals, and surrounded by peoples of differing tongues and elegant manners.
Such experiences in life, even if they involve only superficial contact with another place and people, are often deeply enriching. Amon returned from the war with a mind for civic duty, and a library was high on his list of priorities.
Today we are surrounded by schools and libraries, but despite these structural efforts, it is easy to tell from our daily interactions that ignorance stubbornly keeps its hold on many. In the vicious political speech of today, for example, the terms "fascist," "racist," "liberal," "socialist" are popular insults, but the attacker is rarely able to articulate anything about the movements to which these words refer, and thus under questioning makes himself a fool.
Despite the prevailing ignorance, I believe the desire to know is stronger than ever. Having been failed by some school or university, many intuitively conclude that their minds are poorly equipped for many desired pursuits. And this self awareness is the first step toward a fuller life.
When a boy comes to maturity, he naturally asks about his family history. Likewise, the impulse to understand the world is strong and persistent in the reasoning adult. When that mental space is only sparingly furnished, the urge to fill it is difficult to resist.
To fill in the mental gaps, a native curiosity must lead the effort, and seek out the necessary reading. And reading is required. For only clear, simple and direct language can communicate thought. Images can be little more than a supplement in matters of the mind.
But where does one start with so much choice? Indeed, our society’s overproduction is another obstacle for the learner, for it is difficult to decide what materials to use when putting one’s mind in order.
My recommendation is to begin with history, specifically Western history starting with the Renaissance in Italy. One may argue that we are Americans and should know our country first, but that misses the point that to know America one should understand first its roots. We did not suddenly spring from the ground to annihilate the natives of this continent or write our constitution in an isolated fit of genius. Our modern government, manners, arts, ideals and religion are all directly connected to the civilization of Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is the birthplace of the manmade world around us. The book to read on the subject is Jacob Burckhardt’s.
From Italy, follow the line of our civilization through the three revolutions that connect our society to the past 500 years. Barzun’s masterpiece "From Dawn to Decadence" is an excellent reference guide. It is full of book recommendations, profiles of important figures, plus ideas and events to explore. No matter what your preferred area of study, Barzun will give you a sensible place to start by telling you where to dig deeper.
From that essential beginning with history, the learner should be free to explore his interests, but sticking to hard books. Hard books are those that have stood the test of time because they can be read over and over, always bearing new fruit. Hard books contain a new idea in each sentence and leave the reader with a sense of fulfillment when completed.
To be sure, learning is not easy; it is work. But work has the benefit of satisfaction when completed. During work one loses track of time, is immersed in the task and driven to complete it.
The work of study has even greater benefits, for Pascal reminds us that thinking brings us closer to the divine, and it is only through the life of the mind that man is truly great.
Jesse Corn is a Gainesville resident. His columns appear regularly on Fridays.