Ideas Are Dangerous Things

Dear Hope Nation,

Reading books is dangerous, and I recommend against it. When I read—and here I mean real, challenging books, not just novels or history which take up most of my time—I’m forced to confront new ideas. New ideas are always dangerous, and I recommend against them.  Introduced to new ideas, because I’m cursed with intellectual honesty, I can only keep them outside my mental living room for so long. The damn things keep knocking at my brain until I let them in. Once in, they make me rearrange all my preexisting understanding, even having to throw some of my old ideas out. Since many of my favorite notions have been with me for years, it seems a shame to discard them just because they’re false. Still, because of that damned intellectual honesty, I’ve got to wrap them up like yesterday’s fish and put them in the rubbish. It’s a lot of work, and avoiding books is a good way to maintain my brain’s comfort. Still, my mind itches to read, and sometimes only real books are within arm’s reach.

My bedside table now has a copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter. My friend John Warnke suggested the book two-and-a-half years ago, when I was still living in a Tiny White Box in the Great North Woods. John is a physicist, I believe, or at least a really smart and well-educated guy, and he said half the scientists he knows cite Hofstadter’s book as one of their favorites of all time. He came close to declaring it a life-changing book, high praise indeed.

I mentioned Godel is on my bedside table. I didn’t mention having read it. I haven’t yet, although I do intend to. Eventually. For 30 months, I’ve managed to place other books on top of it, I’ve finished Obama’s memoir, a study of Spiro Agnew’s various dastardities and am almost through an examination of Truman’s foreign policy. Unless I got to a bookstore soon, Douglas Hofstadter is next, followed by a redecoration and redesign of the inside of my skull.

To help you, constant reader, avoid rethinking everything you know or think you know, I’m issuing a public warning. If you want to stay where you are mentally, don’t want to be challenged to think, and wish to stay away from rearranging your prejudices, avoid the following five books.

  1. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other by Walker Percy. Essays on semiotics, linguistics, Helen Keller and theology.
  2. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy. Same guy. Completely different. Sort of a Dummy’s Guide to existentialism, with examples and quizzes.
  3. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Especially if followed by The Story of B and My Ishmael. Quinn’s explanation of tribalism, Mother Culture, human history and gorillas.
  4. A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Seventy-six brief essays on the beliefs and disbeliefs of great thinkers.
  5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I can’t say enough so enough said.

Again, ideas are dangerous things. Like viruses, they infect the whole mind, not just the part they’ve entered. Just ask any drinker who’s read Alcoholics Anonymous then tried to return to the pleasures of drunkenness.

You matter. I matter. We matter.


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