In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg, Germany church door. Initially, the document didn’t make much of a splash. Luther wrote it, though, at the dawn of mass media: Johannes Guttenberg had recently invented the printing press.
In the time before copyright and intellectual property, Guttenberg concocted a great marketing scheme: To get his invention noticed, he cranked out copies of Luther’s 95 Thesis. It quickly went viral and shattered the previous impervious fortress of ecclesiastical authority.
By democratizing reading vis-à-vis the printing press, Guttenberg raised the individual’s conscious and intellectual authority above that of the tribe, religion, and government. He opened the door to the restoration of Western individualism to its Greek—Socratic, Platonic, Aristotelian—essences.
Two and a half centuries later, pamphleteers, led by Thomas Paine, provided critical moral support and intellectual legitimacy for the Founders and fighters in the War for Independence. Soon after, the writings of the great political theorists—Rousseau, Locke, Hume—fueled the revolution that ended the ancien régime in France.
Thomas Jefferson, understanding the necessity of a literate populace for a successful democracy, began the push for universal public education for girls as well as boys, carrying on an ideal fostered by Luther.
The purpose of a liberal education is to uplift, open, and challenge the mind. Without it, there’s the danger of becoming a doctrinaire zealot, non-thinking dolt, or functionary, a computer essence enclosed in a bio-body suit, filled with numbers and data, for whom the auto-response to the unknown and untested is fear and Ramboism, knee-jerk violence.
The power of literacy cannot be understated. Globally, literacy and empowerment of women are keys to uplifting people from poverty. That’s true as well in America: The more educated, the higher income and standard of living.
Reading in a wide range of genres empowers the mind. Those that read prolifically are more likely to be critical thinkers, not likely to be hoodwinked, fooled by propaganda, particularly that which is spread via the Internet. Critical readers and thinkers are the antitheses of those that, for example, forward Facebook memes with little or no thought given to their truthfulness, accuracy, and factual basis.
Books are essential to an enlightened, open, curious mind. Critical reading and critical thinking are intricately entwined, correlated. One leads to the other.
Dissent is requisite for a healthy democracy, the reason it is enshrined in the First Amendment. Legitimate dissent, albeit occasionally fueled by passion, relies on reason.
Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, writes in the Washington Post about the liberal fight against “the unreasoned campaign to delegitimize dissent.” She points out that “when the pushback entails the reflexive, categorical rejection of certain views, it can mimic the very mindlessness it abhors.”
“As with overzealous law enforcement,” she writes, “intense patrolling of speech can prompt overcautiousness, chilling the legitimate exchange of ideas.”
One becomes in danger of falling into the groupthink trap, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”
Groupthink leads to intellectual nihilism. Baseless, insipid, and repugnant ideas go viral, cloaking them with legitimacy and becoming gospel for the close-minded.
“By telling ourselves we cannot abide the airing of certain ideas,” Nossel argues, “much less respond to them, we forfeit the chance to hone the most persuasive counterarguments through trial and error.”
One antidote is reading, specifically books in their most glorious array of genres, from fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction to self-help and spiritual quests. As the Queen instructs Sir Kevin in “The Uncommon Reader,” reading books is about traveling to other worlds and discovering other lives. “One wishes,” she says, “one had more of it.”
Books are the best stocking-stuffers, especially for young minds. During the Georgetown Christmas Market, forty-seven Colorado authors will participate in my Bighorn Book Nook: Colorado Authors Book Sale and Signing at the Georgetown Heritage Center. The genres include children and young adult stories; adult fiction: mystery, romance, sci-fi, and more; spiritual and self-help; Colorado scenes, landscapes, and history, both non-fiction and fiction.
A curious mind is an appealing character trait.
For the schedule, visit the Bighorn Book Club website: www.bighornbookclub.com.