His most recent book, The Torchlight List: Around the World in 200 Books, is really a journey through the realm of literature that Flynn has found magical. He writes that "I am now seventy-six and the magic realm of literature captivates me as much as it did when I was four." The Torchlight List is filled with his brief summaries of the books that make up his journey. Flynn's summaries are like tantalizing movie trailers-short bursts of images-that literally teleport your mind from one side of the earth to the other. Perhaps this book is also an example of travel writing through great historical literature.
I had the pleasure of talking with James Flynn about his new book. And after our conversation, I couldn't agree more with Thomas W. Pogge, who said that "Flynn is one of the most interesting and independent thinkers of his generation." I encourage you to read on if you want to learn more about the value of literature in one's education and how you might be able to inspire a love of reading, perhaps not only in yourself, but also in your children.
WAI: I was intrigued by the image you provided in your title: great works of literature lighting the way for anyone with the ability to read to travel through historical time and experience the world. Could you tell me more about where the idea for this book and where this image came from?
FLYNN: I have long lamented the fact that reading serious literature has declined over the years even among my best students. When they graduate, some of them ask me for lists of books to read. I took the chance to publish a definitive list with comments that would convince young people (and those who already love reading) that these books would give them pleasure and inform them. The "torchlight" image comes from the tale of my Uncle Ed related in the introduction. Although his formal education terminated at 11 (not unusual for Irish-American working class children at that time), he read at night by torchlight on ship when he was a seaman in World War I.
WAI: You give us your thoughts on works that provide a guide to the past. How important do you think an understanding of the past is for an appreciation of the present? And how did you decide which works to include?
FLYNN: Anyone who is a-historical lacks autonomy. They live in the bubble of the present that is defined for them by their government and the media. They have no accumulated knowledge that allows them to criticize what they are told.
If more Americans had been aware that their government and compliant media have habitually lied to get them into wars, they might have been more skeptical about Iraq. I refer to the sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898 (it was not sunk by the Spanish), the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 (it was not an innocent passenger vessel but loaded with arms), and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1965 (as if it were remotely plausible that a few little boats had attacked the US 7th Fleet). If they had known anything about Saddam Hussein, they would have known that he and Osama bin laden were bitter enemies and that he had nothing to do with 9/11.
The books were chosen out of those I had read (naturally), thought were outstanding literature (with a few exceptions), shed light on a place and time (mainly since 1850), and were accessible to new readers as well as veteran readers. This ruled out masterpieces by Joyce, Kafka, Cervantes, and Thucydides, for example. Only 125 of the selections are novels, the rest are wonderful histories, biographies, introductions to science or mathematics, plays, films, and poems. You would be surprised at the hard choices (omitted Jane Austen) you have to make to keep within the limit of 125 novels.
WAI: You mentioned in an interview that some of your students did not know who Hitler was, and in a sense it was like you were talking to a "medieval peasant." What kinds of reactions have you received from your students or from the youth? Do they disagree or agree with you?
FLYNN: Naturally the feedback you get is positive because the people who bother to get in touch are those with whom you strike a chord. But I have been pleased at the response. Former students have emailed me to say that they have tried the five novels I particularly recommend and liked them and intend to read. Others have said that they liked reading already but had no guidance on what to read. Four high schools are using the book to guide their senior reading classes. Parents are ordering the books I list for their children. The faith of a few in the list is touching. At least two people have ordered the whole 250, and others have asked if it is all right not to read the books in the order listed!
WAI: You discuss how you are not only targeting students who go to university but to those who will not. What are your thoughts about the usefulness of a college degree? Charles Murray in his book Real Education also makes the case that a college degree may not be the appropriate path for many people. Do you agree with Murray?
FLYNN: Murray is thinking of those who do not have an inclination towards an academic education and could earn a good living by becoming an electrician or plumber. I cast a broad net for two reasons. There are plenty of bright people who do not go to university and if they are willing to read and learn, they need not give up on understanding the modern world. And the universities do not actually educate students to read widely and think critically, so non-students are at much less of a disadvantage than they might think.
WAI: The way I see it, this book is essentially your journey through the "magical realm" of great literature as you call it, with your praises and critiques of the major historical landmarks. Do you think that the magic realm contains an essential core of culture that matters? Take the work of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and his emphasis on cultural literacy. [For interested readers, see the article I wrote on cultural literacy here]. What are your thoughts on where The Torchlight List and the idea of cultural literacy are related? And do you think that each person should find their own way through the magical realm?
FLYNN: Each person should indeed find his or her own way through both literature and history. I merely want to get them started. There is a central core of culture that matters. I should have emphasized the role of literature not only in developing awareness of history and the modern world but also in realizing the potential of one's humanity. A nation whose people have learned to empathize with tragedy and joy universally is a very different from a nation whose people only know these things in so far as they affect them personally.
WAI: The likelihood that the majority of children will "discover" the magic realm of great literature is highly unlikely considering your observations of youths today including your students. You mention that perhaps parents should "lead" their children into the magic realm. What are your thoughts on the idea that perhaps youths should be "tossed" into the magic realm against their will such that a greater majority of them might then grow to appreciate it and perhaps begin to call it home?
FLYNN: I do not think that a child can be "tossed" into literature by rhetoric or bribes - they must see their parents (or a teacher or a friend) reading and discussing literature with enjoyment. My book is of course not aimed at children but adults, readers or non-readers, from every age from 14 to death.
WAI: You mention that "fewer and fewer students read great works of literature." Do you think this is because there are so many distractions today such that everyone is spread so thin trying to pursue a narrow avenue of expertise to make a living? Why do you think fewer and fewer students read great works of literature? Is this a symptom of our times? Newton famously remarked that "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." Are more recent generations failing to value that which has come before them?
FLYNN: The present is so noisy and visually attractive that any interest in the past or the future, beyond the immediate personal future, becomes an esoteric interest.
WAI: About the works that you recommend, you state that "They will help you to liberate yourself. You can know enough accounting to help a corporation evade their taxes, own a large house and drive an expensive car, and yet be no freer than a medieval serf, buffeted about by social forces he could not comprehend." Could you expand more on this comment, in particular what you mean when you say these great works of literature might help people liberate themselves from the chains of their everyday lives?
FLYNN: Well I have done that above. An a-historical person who lives only in the present is at the mercy of those who have the power to define the present. Orwell (in 1984) thought that governments would have to rewrite history. They do of course but it is largely unnecessary. They have at their feet a people who simply never think to explore history because, to them, it is unreal. Think about how a bit of history would have made people more autonomous rather than accepting of the "reality" defined for them by their rulers about Iraq. If every one had read Robert Fisk's The great war for civilization they would have known the limits of "nation-building" that European armies can effect in the Middle East. If they had any empathy they would have wondered what Europe would have thought of Islamic armies rampaging about to set its house in order. An Army in Britain to make them nicer to the Irish, one in France to help Huguenots, one in Spain to promote the independent of the Basques.
WAI: In your final chapter, "Leading your Children Into The Magical Realm," you remark that because you are an intelligence expert parents often ask you how they can increase their children's intelligence or IQ. You counter that no parent should "aim at anything so trivial." You go on to say that "What they should want to give their children is a lively mind that has reached its full potential for enjoyment and understanding. Unfortunately, no one can give that to another person: the person must do it for themselves by reading and thinking. And there is no technique and trick that parents can use to make their child love reading." So what do you think parents can do to encourage a love of reading in their children?
FLYNN: Keep TV and the internet in the living room where they can be rationed, don't set an example of someone who is dependant on them (or uses them as a baby sitter), read, have your child hear you both talking about what you read, try to keep them away from aimless peer groups (very hard).
WAI: You say that "I am now seventy-six and the magic realm of literature captivates me as much as it did when I was four." Does this mean you were able to read works of literature at age 4? Do you remember how you first learned to read? Could you tell me more about your early childhood and how a love for reading first ignited within you?
FLYNN: You missed the passage where I mentioned my "uneducated" father reading me all of Dickens when I was 4. I cannot remember when I learned to read but know that when I was 8, we had to list all the books we had ever read for school (would that happen now?) and I had read over a hundred. I had also begun to "write a history" of the Byzantine Empire, which had caught my interest as the successor to Rome.
WAI: You mention that "Readers have to give something of themselves to a book, rather than just passively observe it." Do you think that today in the age of internet reading where everyone appears to be looking for a quick bit of insight or trick to solve a problem that they are simply unwilling to give of themselves but only wish to get something? Have we forgotten that learning is not always easy but often takes blood, sweat, and tears? I ask this because you conclude your book with: "These books will set your feet on the way to the kind of education no university offers. And just think: no fees, no classes to attend, no exams to take." But the reader, in order to gain, will have to be prepared to give much of themselves, isn't that correct? Will the magical insights come only after one has immersed themselves so deeply that they then slowly begin to see?
FLYNN: They will find it easier and easier to give something of themselves to books as their reading accumulates. It will take awhile. All the media condition us to expect a "fix" every few minutes, a car chase, a rape, a murder. In Crime and punishment, there is only one murder and it takes a lot of pages to get to. You have to fall in love with the development of characters and atmosphere.
WAI: You write of the current youth culture that "It is an audio culture with a constant surround of popular music. It is a visual culture with leisure spent on the web and watching TV and films. Computer games are mesmerizing. Recently a sixteen-year-old killed his eighteen-year-old brother over access to PlayStation." I value your goal of inspiring a love of reading in the youth today. However, considering that this is our current culture, don't you think it will be quite difficult to inspire students to disentangle themselves from their present culture and then immerse themselves in the great culture of the past?
FLYNN: Yes it will be difficult. But we have one ally: how boring it is as you age to immerse yourself in this junk.
WAI: Is there anything else you'd like to share about The Torchlight List that my questions did not cover?
FLYNN: No-these were good questions.
© 2011 by Jonathan Wai
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