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It has become a cliche to say that we are flooded with information, that the life of a person who lives and works in a post-industrial environment of electronic networks and instant communication is fast, stressful, distracting, and overloaded. That we can't talk about any one thing with depth. That our subjects change all the time. That we are afraid, and unable, to think.

Most people who invoke such arguments have some sort of agenda—they want you to believe that everybody is addled and alienated, and that's why everything is as bad as it is in whatever way everything is supposedly bad, and if we all just stopped using computers and started talking to each other more, God and peace and biodiversity and children with good manners would return to Earth from the undisclosed location where they are holed up, waiting.

I'm sympathetic to this argument, mostly because I'm sympathetic to any argument that suggests the world is doomed. Today I'm going to invoke it to talk about a new series of books, and why I haven't read them, but can recommend them to you anyway.

The series is published by Penguin Books and is called "Great Ideas." Each book is a small paperback volume, each one under 200 pages. Convenient and portable. Perfect books for a busy world. Nonetheless, I don't have time to read them all.

Not having time to read them shouldn't stop any of us, however, because the books come equipped with short quotes on their front covers that serve as examples of the wisdom within. I intend to carry at least one of these books with me at all times, and I intend to be seen with them, because I want to be known as a person with Great Ideas.

One day, perhaps, I will be noticed carrying Baldesar Castiglione's How to Achieve True Greatness. This is, it seems to me, one of the more esoteric of the Great Ideas volumes because I had never heard of Baldesar Castiglione before getting this book, and any writer I have not heard of by now is esoteric. But what a marvelous title!

"How," someone will ask me, "can such a large topic be contained in such a small book?"

Thankfully, I can read the quote on the cover to my interlocutor. "It is necessary to have a master who by his teaching and precepts stirs and awakens the moral virtues whose seed is enclosed and buried in our souls."

My interlocutor might then say, "What do you mean by 'moral virtues'?"

I will simply reply, "Moral virtues are virtues that through their morality prove that they are virtuous." I will then take out another book, one that I will be conveniently carrying in another pocket, and change the subject. (I think I need to get a big coat with lots of pockets.) In this addled age of attention deficits, nobody notices if you change the subject. Transitions are a thing of the past. In 1859, the Battle of Solverino brought cruel suffering to both sides, but was indecisive. (I am often accused of being indecisive myself.)

"Consider," I will say, holding up Plato's Symposium, "the following: 'Our human race can only achieve happiness if love reaches its conclusion.'" I will tap the book meaningfully and stroke my beard and say, "I have always found this to be true."

"What?" my interlocutor will ask, "is the conclusion of love?"

"Death," I will say.

"Have you experienced death?" my interlocutor will ask.

"I do not need to experience death to understand that it is a conclusion." I will then hold up another Great Idea, Søren Kierkegaard's Fear & Trembling and read from its cover: "If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential, if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?"

To which my interlocutor would say, "But isn't life nothing but despair anyway?"

"Of course it is," I would say. "Which is why death is a conclusion to love, because love, being a moral virtue that encloses its seed in our soul, is an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness in the eternal consciousness of man. And we all know men are indecisive."

"Why are you always talking about men?" my interlocutor will ask. "Are you a sexist?"

"Not in the least," I will say, producing yet another Great Idea, The City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, on the cover of which are embedded the following words: "Men who have slandered the opposite sex out of envy have usually known women who were cleverer and more virtuous than they are."

I find this idea to be not great, but instead a threat to my gender, and altogether disagreeable and far too accurate, and so I throw it away and instead produce Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract, and I scream out the words on its cover: "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains!" I follow this immediately with: "Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, Unite!" (Yes, that's on the cover of the Great Idea we all know and love as The Communist Manifesto.)

Of course, my interlocutor has by now decided I am not only sexist, but insane, and I will have to try to redeem myself. I will quote from the cover of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women: "It is time to effect a revolution in female manners—time to restore them to their lost dignity—and make them, as a part of the human species."

"Are you saying you want women to stay home, raise the kids, and work in the kitchen?" my interlocutor will ask. "Is that your idea of 'female manners'? If so, it is not a great idea."

"No, no," I will say, "I want women to learn from Sun Tzu, the cover of whose book, The Art of War, proclaims: 'Strike with chaos!'"

"So you're saying women create chaos?"

"No," I will say. "I believe, with Thorstein Veblen, that 'Unproductive consumption of goods is honorable.' He said that on the cover of this little Conspicuous Consumption book, which I'm assuming is an excerpt from The Theory of the Leisure Class, another book I haven't read, but I'm sure is full of great ideas."

"What does that have to do with anything we've been discussing?"

"Why are you so linear?" I will ask, and faster than my interlocutor can reply, I will whip out Of Empire by Francis Bacon, on the cover of which is printed: "Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider."

Of Empire is a particularly interesting book, because it is full of little essays about all sorts of things, not just empire, and so a person can get many different great ideas just by reading the table of contents. "Of Revenge," "Of Innovation," "Of Gardens," "Of Anger". . . . Twenty-seven such essays in total. Francis Bacon was a man of our age, a man who understood that our attention spans are short, that none of us can stick to any one subject for very long, that men, like battles and proletarians, are sometimes indecisive and sometimes chained.

Henry David Thoreau was not a man of our age. I don't know what I'll tell my interlocutor about him. I could read what's on the cover of Where I Lived and What I Lived For, but it's not particularly satisfying: "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." What does a person do with truth? It's not a particularly useful idea to us. We need information! Being diligent conspiracy theorists and readers of The Da Vinci Code, we know that nothing is as it seems, and so a little bit of extra information-producing research will help us here: Thoreau was friends with the renowned Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was more famous than Thoreau, who loaned Thoreau money, and who had a wife whom Thoreau had a crush on. Thus, Thoreau is saying here that Emerson is a liar.

By now, my interlocutor has abandoned me, or else I would point out that it is amusing that the Great Idea of Thoreau consists of four excerpts from his book Walden, and that this man who advocated quiet contemplation and a reflective life has now, to be a Great Idea in our world, been abridged for quicker reading.

I only have one Great Idea left, and I can't tie it into any of the other Great Ideas, but my interlocutor is far away, probably playing a video game and checking the stock market while writing a novel about the death of culture and a blog post about the death of the novel. The one remaining Great Idea is Eichmann and the Holocaust, an excerpt from Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. The quote on the cover reads: "It was sheer thoughtlessness that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of the period."

I was wrong. This Great Idea does, indeed, connect with the rest by helping us to understand the importance of them all. Because if our thoughtlessness becomes too great, the only greatness left to us will be that of the criminal.




Matthew Cheney's previous interviews include such writers as Lydia Millet, Jeff VanderMeer, Leena Krohn, Jeffrey Ford, and Kit Reed. More of his work can be read in our archives.
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