A brilliant road map for discovering history, science, civilization, and the human condition, this engaging record recommends must-read books: those so revealing about times and places that they take the reader beyond day-to-day concerns into a magic realm of knowledge and imagination. From Arthur Koestler’s take on the universe and Barbara Tuchman’s view on 14th-century life to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s impressions of American morality and Robert Fisk’s analysis of the West’s history of intervention in the Middle East, this engaging account is an idiosyncratic and endlessly interesting tour of the world through literature.
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About the Author
Jim Flynn is a world-renowned expert on intelligence and IQ and the author of What is Intelligence? and Where Have All the Liberals Gone? He is a professor emeritus of politics at Otago University and a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
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The Torchlight List
Around the World in 200 Books
By Jim Flynn
Awa PressCopyright © 2010 Jim Flynn
All rights reserved.
BORN INTO THE MAGIC REALM
My father was Joseph Roy Flynn, born in 1885, one of seven children who survived to maturity. Like most Irish-American families of the day, he and his four brothers all went into factory work between the ages of eleven and fourteen, so none of them got a high-school education. My grandfather was too proud to put his daughters into Anglo-Saxon homes as servants, so Aunt Marie and Aunt Lucy did finish high school.
My father's first job was in the Rumsey-Sycamore Bed Spring Factory. In 1900, when he was fifteen, the boss put up a sign that said, "If this county goes for William Jennings Bryan [the more liberal candidate for President], there will be no work for two weeks." They voted for Bryan and were locked out for two weeks.
In their youth, all seven siblings worked as wandering actors in a troupe that offered plays — The Trials of the Working Girl, Ingomar, the Barbarian, The Hunchback of Notre Dame — around small-town Missouri. This was about 1910. However, they advanced to the professions because in those days credentialing was absent, and you could actually better yourself without an irrelevant college degree.
My father and two of his brothers became especially well-educated because, despite lack of formal education, they loved to read. My Uncle Ed read at night on a naval ship in World War I. Family legend has it that he used a torch, or flashlight. These were available by 1911 but it is possible he used a ship's lantern. As a result of his reading, he was one of six enlisted men who passed an exam to qualify for officer's training. Later he left the navy to become one of the most distinguished real estate entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C. He handled the famous Watergate Apartments where the break-in occurred that eventually led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. He was the only one of the boys who did not have an alcohol problem, a disease prominent among Irish-American males (read Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night). Uncle Henry was a distinguished journalist whose life and career were ruined by alcoholism. Uncle Jack became a naval commander who drank himself to death on Guam. I do not know whether Uncle Paul liked to read, although he did work at the Library of Congress.
My own generation, with one exception, has been largely exempt, so alcoholism is not in our genes. (Maybe reading is.) I suspect that since we were all college graduates the struggle to reach our potential was less grim. Perhaps it was just our professions because in the past the military and journalism were staffed by hard-drinking men (there were no women). Journalism was on the fringe of social respectability. The police were corrupt and did not like reporters saying so, which meant there were risks. My father's teeth on one side of his lower jaw were damaged when a policeman hit him with a blackjack.
My father was a drunk but not an alcoholic. He got drunk most evenings but was always sober the next day for work and was never jailed for public drunkenness. He often went to the police station to bail out his brothers. He was an excellent journalist but was out of work for about six years during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Like so many others, he was rescued by the onset of World War II, when he entered public service as a press-relations expert. Of all the family, he loved reading the most. He became highly educated, with a vocabulary larger than my own. To show off, he would do The New York Times' crossword puzzle in ink, just to advertise that he never made mistakes. He loved reading aloud, and when I was four read me all the novels of Charles Dickens. So I was born to reading. It simply never occurred to me not to read for pleasure.
TEENAGERS AND UNIVERSITIES
I have been a university lecturer for fifty-four years, and have taught at the University of Otago for the last forty-four. I have enjoyed my teaching more than I can say. But one thing has troubled me greatly. At universities in both America and New Zealand, universities such as Wisconsin State, Maryland, Cornell, Canterbury and Otago, I have noticed a trend: fewer and fewer students read great works of literature.
This is true even of my brightest students. It was true at Cornell, a university so élite that everyone was a bright student. Ask students what novelist they like the best and you get a blank, or some reference to the author of airport trash. And it is not just students: many of the university professors who are my colleagues no longer read outside the professional literature. Thus, if you read great books, as my Uncle Ed did by torchlight, you will know more than many university professors.
What has happened to young people from my time to this time? In 2008 and 2009 I was at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City and studied test trends on vocabulary in America. The tests did not include specialized vocabulary, but sampled the vocabulary used in everyday life. Between 1948 and 2006, adults had made huge gains but schoolchildren, including those in their teens, had made very marginal gains. If we assume that the two age groups were similar in 1948, teenagers have fallen far behind: today fewer than nineteen percent of them have a non-specialized vocabulary that overlaps with that of the top fifty percent of their parents. I refer to their active vocabulary, the words they can use when they initiate a conversation. Passive vocabulary refers to the words you can understand when someone else uses them. Here the gulf between teenager and adult has grown very little, if at all.
In sum, in 1948 teenagers could both understand and use the vocabularies of their parents. In 2006 they could understand their parents but, to a surprising degree, could not initiate a conversation using adult language. The damage is not permanent: they make up some of the gap if they go to university, and a few years after they have entered the world of work they make up the rest.
I have spoken of teenagers. As late as 1950, the term "teenager" did not exist. Those aged thirteen to nineteen wanted to become adults and enjoy the privileges of adults, such as lack of supervision and an income of their own. I never had money in my pocket except that given me by my parents for a specific purpose, say to do an errand or see a film. Today there is something called teenage subculture, and its members have the prerogatives of adulthood without the responsibilities. They have enormous purchasing power and, thanks to the automobile, a privacy that relieves them of close supervision. This subculture is so attractive that some young adults want to remain in it through their twenties and even their thirties, as parents who wish their aging children would get a job and move away from home are well aware.
Teenage subculture has developed its own English dialect. However, I had never realized that it had become so insulated that its members were not being socialized into their society's speech community.
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. No teenager in recent years has killed another in an argument over who was to get to read Tolstoy's War and Peace. Their subculture does not put a high priority on reading literature that requires concentration and wide general knowledge. After all, you are unlikely to enjoy War and Peace if the vocabulary is unfamiliar and you do not know who Napoléon was or where Russia is. The book runs to five volumes and 640 pages. If you love reading, you like long books because you never want a good book to end. If you read only as a last resort, when you cannot use electronic devices on an airplane, you will prefer to read a magazine about Paris Hilton.
I suggest that teenage culture not only gives young people a vocabulary gap, but also creates a love-of-reading deficit. While the former is closed with age, all too often the latter persists throughout life. Going to university does not do much good. Each university department assigns specialized reading within its field, and the more reading assigned the less time students have for leisure reading. If neither teenage nor university subcultures inculcate a love of reading, conveyancing in a law office is not going to step into the breach.
THE MAGIC REALM
This book will take you into a world far more wonderful than the world of work and entertainment. At university I try to make converts by assigning works of literature that shed light on human psychology, history or philosophy. Some students respond by asking me to give them lists of books. Well, here is your list. But I also want to make converts of those who have not yet gone or will never go to university.
The educational establishment may ignore you but I will not. I remember my own family and how they educated themselves. Many in my running club have never been to university. Some of them are among the most intelligent and intellectually curious people I know. Some of them are better informed than university students about almost everything, except the narrow knowledge a graduate gets from majoring in physics or commerce or engineering. Some of my running companions know who Hitler was. As for my students, I once set an exam question about tyranny in the twentieth century. Only a few students could volunteer Hitler's name. The history of Germany from 1918 to 1945 is the story of how this man helped change what was perhaps the most civilized nation in Europe into an engine of cruelty almost beyond comprehension. Fortunately, a great novelist has charted the period for you: Erich Maria Remarque.
Let me convince you that you can make time to read. Read for forty minutes before bed each night to clear your mind of the day's concerns. Start with five great novels: Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Slave; Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey; F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; Erich Maria Remarque, Spark of Life; and Calder Willingham, End as a Man. I will make a bet: at least two of these will move you to tears and awaken emotions beyond anything pop culture can do.
LEARNING TO BE FREE
In a book in press, I try to give people the concepts they need to comprehend the complexities of the modern world. I want them to be free. I want them to be able to understand the world, rather than just be swept along by the river of time with no real comprehension of what is happening to them. But I stress that a full toolkit of concepts is not enough. You need to know something about science, and nations other than your own and their histories, and the human condition.
I am going to try to convince you that learning about the world can be delightful, because it can be done by reading for pleasure: novels, histories so well-written that they read like novels, poetry, and plays. In addition, there are some films you should try to see. I have chosen books not only for artistic merit but also for their power to educate. This means I have excluded some of the greatest novels ever written: their content would not acquaint you with a particular time or place. And I have included some books that are merely entertaining (only a few) because they are informative. The numbered works, those that will at least entertain, come to 200. Does that sound like a lot? Don't think of it that way. Education is a lifelong quest. Select out the ones you think you would enjoy, read them one by one, and luxuriate in the pleasure. The lot would take you only about five years if you read an hour or so a night.
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. Or you can enter a magic realm in which people are more interesting, informed, amusing and intelligent than anyone you encounter in everyday life. You can learn about our past, its wars and triumphs, you can learn about our time, its sins and joys, about America, Britain, the Russian soul, and why we will all have to settle for less if our planet is to survive.CHAPTER 2
SCIENCE AND EARLY CIVILIZATION
I will recommend some books that are not about mainstream science but are too good to miss. One of these is C. L. Barber, The Story of Language. Barber's views on the origins of language are interesting, but the main theme is how one small cluster of closely interrelated dialects — called Proto-Indo-European — that were spoken some seven thousand years ago in the vicinity of the Caspian Sea is the ancestor of most of the major languages of Europe, Iran and India, languages that are today the native tongues of approximately three billion people. In the process of discussing how these languages originated, Barber will introduce you to the prehistory of Europe.
The ancient Greeks invented the mathematics and science that led to Newton and Einstein: see the relevant chapters of Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Greek World. They will awaken in you an admiration of Archimedes as a genius perhaps unsurpassed in our civilization: "so great a mathematician it seems impertinent to praise him." He solved geometrical problems that involve leaps of the imagination so breathtaking that he may have had at his disposal mathematical techniques not "discovered" until the seventeenth century. I suspect that you will not be able to resist reading the whole book and will thus learn about classical Greece in general.
A wonderful book in its own right and a window on pre-classical Greece is John Chadwick's The Decipherment of Linear B. It tells the tragic story of Michael Ventris, who died in a car crash in 1956 at the age of thirty-four. Before his death, he translated — with Chadwick's help — tablets from Knossos, an ancient city on the island of Crete. Ventris had a remarkable gift for languages; he spoke six European languages and read Latin and classical Greek. The brilliant deductions that led him to discover that Linear B was in fact pre-Homeric Greek read like a detective story. He established that the great civilization of ancient Crete was part of the mainland Mycenaean Greek civilization that preceded the dark ages of Greece and Homer.
To get the full story of how mathematics evolved from its earliest beginnings to the discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibnitz, read Alfred Hooper, Makers of Mathematics. Appropriately, there is a picture of an abacus on the cover. It is thought some such computational device led the Arabs to the crucial concept of zero as a number, rather than as the absence of anything.
This book will make you appreciate how much the progress of mathematics has depended on the development of mathematical notation. Originally problems were stated in prose. Imagine you had to solve a problem such as this: There is a number such that if the whole of it is added to one-seventh of it, the result will be nineteen. The Egyptian solution to this problem consists of a complex series of steps developed in a long essay leading to the conclusion that, if 16 and 17 were separated by eight "leaps", then the number would be at the fifth leap between them. We would simply write: x + x/7 = 19. Then the solution is easy. Take both sides of the equation times 7. This gives 7x + 1x = 7 × 19 (or 133). Thus 8x = 133, which means x = 16 5/8.
Excerpted from The Torchlight List by Jim Flynn. Copyright © 2010 Jim Flynn. Excerpted by permission of Awa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
BORN INTO THE MAGIC REALM, 1,
SCIENCE AND EARLY CIVILIZATION, 11,
AMERICAN HISTORY, 19,
AMERICA BROODS, 31,
THE HUMAN CONDITION I, 41,
LATIN AMERICA, 47,
BRITAIN AND ITS EMPIRE, 59,
THE HUMAN CONDITION II, 71,
GERMANY, FRANCE AND RUSSIA, 79,
THE HUMAN CONDITION III, 95,
SPAIN, PORTUGAL, ITALY AND SCANDINAVIA, 101,
A FEW BOOKS ON AFRICA, 119,
CHINA, JAPAN, INDIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST, 125,
LEADING YOUR CHILDREN INTO THE MAGIC REALM, 141,
LIST OF WORKS, 143,