Vail Daily column: Reading books helps us size up sticky situations
September 23, 2016
Reading books frequently furnishes a clarifying lens through which we view human strengths and weaknesses. Books save us from repeating firsthand adversities others triumph over or endure. Reading helps us learn life's lessons from characters' wise choices. Books furnish uncommon common sense as they send us on literary journeys.
Reading presidential biographies and absorbing U.S. history books cultivate perspective. They help us size up life's struggles and successes, which a snippet of conversation on Fox News or a soundbite from reality TV doesn't deliver.
Learning from history is vital to analyzing what's ahead. "The longer you look back," declared Winston Churchill, "the further you can see forward." "We live in the most thoughtless of ages," he lamented. "Every day headlines and short views. I have tried to drag history up a little nearer to our times in case it should be a guide to present difficulties."
The Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump rejects Churchill's sage counsel about immersing ourselves in books that teach about massive mistakes and monumental achievements.
Trump brags he doesn't need to read widely and deeply because he is blessed with a sixth sense.
Call it intuition, what your gut tells you, or an ability to guess correctly. Why read when you already have all the answers because, for every knotty problem, you hear deep-down the comforting intonations of your own voice?
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Pulitzer prize-winning historian Jon Meacham in "What a President Needs to Know," describes Trump's spur-of-the-moment NATO policy. It doesn't take book learning. "(Trump's) answer (to a Wolf Blitzer query about NATO in a CNN interview last March) was a telling instance of what he (The Donald) believes is his 'special' capacity to arrive at conclusions with little forethought. 'When Wolf Blitzer asked me about NATO, I'm not a student of NATO, but I gave him two answers: It's obsolete, and we're spending too much money because these countries are not paying their fair share.'
"So Trump was acting intuitively? 'Off the cuff,' Trump replied. 'I didn't read books on NATO — you do — and yet I was asked the question.'
"There it all was: Trump winging it on an issue of global significance (the shape of the Western alliance, a cornerstone of security since former President Harry Truman) — and then congratulating himself for it" (Time, July 25). This Republican presidential candidate couldn't have expressed more clearly his disdain for reading books, which help us make informed decisions.
Groaning about reading books to acquire insight sounds like the spiritual curmudgeon who wrote Ecclesiastes. He groused that days felt as if he were suffocating in an overstuffed library. "Of the making of many books, there is no end," the griper complained, "and much study is the weariness of the flesh" (Ecclesiastes 11:12).
Trump appeals to voters hooked on reality TV. Viewers identify with him because Trump's mind thrives on what makes reality TV a hit. He speaks in sound bites, loves a verbal brawl, is always right, pokes at opponents and jumps from one inflammatory subject to another. His mind reflects a reality TV script.
Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of Trump's bestseller "The Art of the Deal," reveals why The Donald ignores books. He flits like a butterfly from one bud to another, rather than patiently sucking nectar from one flower, like a bee does.
Trump displays a short attention span. That's left him with "a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance," concedes Schwartz. "That's why he so prefers TV as his first news source — information comes in easily digestible sound bites."
Schwartz shakes his head in disbelief over what he found missing in Trump's office and apartment — books. "I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life," says Schwartz. During the 18 months he researched parts of "The Art of the Deal" and conducted several interviews with Trump, Schwartz never saw a book on Trump's desk, tucked into a corner of his office, or displayed in his lavish apartment.
This inability to concentrate makes Schwartz cringe, especially if Trump occupies the Oval Office. "If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room," declared an alarmed Schwartz, "it's impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time."
A president who doesn't read books and doesn't delve into history is more than intellectually thin; he's dangerous. C.S. Lewis, the defender of Christian faith, preached a sermon, "Learning in War-time," to British students after World War II broke out.
Why keep on studying? Lewis answered, "Most of all, perhaps we need an intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that … much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.
"A person who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age."
Let Trump take to heart this wise counsel and start reading history books.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.
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