As another summer reading season unfolds, I’ve been thinking about Robert Louis Stevenson, whose novels are perfect books for the beach.
Stevenson died in 1894, long before the publishing industry developed summer reading as a promotions bonanza. Even so, from “Kidnapped” to “Treasure Island” to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” he served up the kind of gripping stories easily sampled from a hammock or lounge chair.
But Stevenson offered another possibility for reading that seems worth exploring in this season of our political discontent. Heady escapism aside, he thought the best reading was the kind that challenges our beliefs, perhaps leading us to concede that we have no monopoly on the truth.
Much has been written about our partisan media age, the tendency to live in our own ideological echo chambers, sampling only those opinions that affirm our own.
But that phenomenon isn’t really new, as Stevenson, writing in 1887, made clear. Even back then, Stevenson noticed that people were soothed and seducted by what they agreed with. It is, come to think of it, a basic fixture of human experience, no doubt as old as our species.
True reading, Stevenson suggested, could be a kind of antidote to our intellectual complacency – the means “by which a man rises to understand that he is not punctually right, nor those from whom he differs absolutely wrong.”
Stevenson wasn’t arguing for a wishy-washy form of moral relativism, but for a real contest of ideas that might help readers clarify their convictions, though not necessarily abandon them.
A real reader, he wrote, “will see the other side of propositions and the other side of virtues. He need not change his dogma for that, but he may change his reading of that dogma, and he must supplement and correct his deductions from it. A human truth, which is always very much a lie, hides as much of life as it displays. It is men who hold another truth, or, as it seems to us, perhaps, a dangerous lie, who can extend our restricted field of knowledge, and rouse our drowsy consciences.”
Stevenson’s observation reminded me of those summers when a book blew open my ordered orthodoxy, reshuffling – often uncomfortably – my sense of how the world worked.
In 1983, as a college freshman, I smugly regarded my life like a completed crossword with every answer neatly inked in. On a road trip, I cracked open a copy of “Lost in the Cosmos,” a philosophical speculation by novelist Walker Percy that shook me awake. Percy revealed intellectual ambition as a much messier calling, one that required faith precisely because not all or even most riddles of humanity could be resolved. I finished the book a less cocksure reader but, I hope, a deeper one.
In another summer, I read “The Affluent Society,” liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous critique of capitalism. I’d heard about the book through William Buckley, the conservative columnist who counted him as a friend – and found that sparring with Galbraith made him a better conservative.
I emerged from “The Affluent Society” with my respect for market principles largely intact, though Galbraith’s arguments forced me to think about economics in a subtler way.
That’s the kind of connection that Stevenson was talking about when he called the ideal of reading “a free grace.” It’s tempting to think of the discourse with books that Stevenson describes as mannered and quaint, the product of a calmer, cooler age. But his century roiled with its own political storms, and Stevenson, striking a note familiar to modern ears, lamented what he saw as the narrow partisanship of the press.
Good books, he felt, offered an alternative – a way to confront out our differences with discernment. “Something that seems quite new, or that seems insolently false or very dangerous, is the test of a reader,” he wrote. “If he tries to see what it means, what truth excuses it, he has the gift, and let him read.”
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”