Friday, October 29, 2010

Great Books

What makes a great book great? At Biola College they offer an honors program in which students read, by the time they graduate, about one hundred of the books considered to be among the very best ever written, but how do they determine which works should be included? Fred Sanders, at The Scriptorium, lists and discusses eight characteristics or criteria of a great book. I've listed the eight, but to read his discussion of them you'll have to visit his article:
  1. A great book speaks from an important original setting.
  2. A great book is written in a way that is relevant for readers today.
  3. A great book is well-crafted.
  4. A great book is one that provokes excellent discussion.
  5. A great book is inexhaustible, so no reading of it is the final reading, and no discussion ever runs it dry.
  6. A great book is time-tested. People from multiple generations have had their hands on it, and have judged it to be worth passing along.
  7. A great book is weird. It’s got angles, edges, textures, and stuff sticking out that you wouldn’t have predicted.
  8. A great book is smarter than the best teacher, but within reach of the average student.
How many books have you read that meet these criteria? Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series doesn't count.

Bad Faith

Shelby Steele is no bitter, white redneck resentful that we have an African American president. He is himself an African American, a former college English professor, an accomplished author (Affirmative Action Baby and White Guilt), and is currently a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column Mr Steele plumbs the mind of Mr. Obama, seeking to understand the assumptions that guide his presidency. It's a very good essay of which the following is a part:
How is it that Barack Obama could step into the presidency with an air of inevitability and then, in less than two years, find himself unwelcome at the campaign rallies of many of his fellow Democrats?
The first answer is well-known: His policymaking has been grandiose, thoughtless and bullying. His health-care bill was ambitious to the point of destructiveness and, finally, so chaotic that today no citizen knows where they stand in relation to it. His financial-reform bill seems little more than a short-sighted scapegoating of Wall Street. In foreign policy he has failed to articulate a role for America in the world. We don't know why we do what we do in foreign affairs. George W. Bush at least made a valiant stab at an American rationale—democratization—but with Mr. Obama there is nothing.
Barack Obama .... is a child of the 1960s. His coming of age paralleled exactly the unfolding of a new "counterculture" American identity. And this new American identity—and the post-1960s liberalism it spawned—is grounded in a remarkable irony: bad faith in America as virtue itself, bad faith in the classic American identity of constitutional freedom and capitalism as the way to a better America.
So Mr. Obama is very definitely an American, and he has a broad American constituency. He is simply the first president we have seen grounded in this counterculture American identity. When he bows to foreign leaders, he is not displaying "otherness" but the counterculture Americanism of honorable self-effacement in which America acknowledges its own capacity for evil as prelude to engagement.
Bad faith in America became virtuous in the '60s when America finally acknowledged so many of its flagrant hypocrisies: the segregation of blacks, the suppression of women, the exploitation of other minorities, the "imperialism" of the Vietnam War, the indifference to the environment, the hypocrisy of puritanical sexual mores and so on. The compounding of all these hypocrisies added up to the crowning idea of the '60s: that America was characterologically evil. Thus the only way back to decency and moral authority was through bad faith in America and its institutions, through the presumption that evil was America's natural default position.
Among today's liberal elite, bad faith in America is a sophistication, a kind of hipness. More importantly, it is the perfect formula for political and governmental power. It rationalizes power in the name of intervening against evil — I will use the government to intervene against the evil tendencies of American life (economic inequality, structural racism and sexism, corporate greed, neglect of the environment and so on), so I need your vote.
Read the rest of Steele's essay at the link. It contains several excellent insights into the mind of Mr. Obama and, by extension, that of many another modern liberal progressive.