Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Next book: _Between the Devil and the Dragon_ by Eric Hoffer

The next book that I'm going to read and blog is Between the Devil and the Dragon by Eric Hoffer.  Hoffer was an interesting man:  Self-educated, he wrote numerous books and essays on social and political topics, the most famous being The True Believer (a book on fanatics and mass movements, which I read nearly 10 years ago).  However, while he was a well-respected writer and social critic, he mostly worked in manual labor, living on skid row and then as a wandering laborer for many years before getting a job as a longshoreman in San Francisco (which he did for 27 years).  The True Believer is a book that I very much enjoyed, being nominally about fanatics and movements but in truth being a wide-ranging exploration of human nature and societies.  The current book is a collection of essays and other works, and The True Believer is in this compendium.  I probably won't re-read it, but I probably will read the rest of it.

My reasons for pick this up are two-fold.  First, obviously, Hoffer was an insightful person with a broad and deep knowledge of history and penetrating observations about people.  My second reason is petty, and perhaps one that Hoffer would not approve of.  I came across the following quote from a collection of aphorisms that Hoffer had published:
In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
This presumes a false dichotomy, while exemplifying a classic style of progressive American anti-intellectualism.  The quote was offered up in a comment thread that had turned to the fashionable psychological concepts and the nature of success.  Its popularity seems to arise from an embrace of a false dichotomy that Hoffer would probably not endorse:  If one spends enough time as a learner, one will eventually become quite learned.  One can be learned and keep on learning, a point that Hoffer would probably grant.  The learned ones who are in the most trouble are the ones who have become comfortable and lazy.

Anyway, I was most bothered that an anti-intellectual dichotomy would come from a writer that I so deeply respect, so I googled the quote, found the source, and then raced to the library to find the context.  Alas, the context is a book of short aphorisms, which is to say that there was no context because the aphorisms were offered independently rather under some thematic organization.  So I looked around the shelf for other books by Hoffer, and found that Between the Devil and the Dragon also has quite a bit to say about intellectuals and the spirit of the modern era.  I'm hoping that I'll find in Hoffer's writings the nuance that was lacking in this invocation of Hoffer for an anti-intellectual point.

Now, of course, Hoffer himself was not a traditional intellectual.  We can debate whether or not the word "intellectual" should be applied to him at all (he apparently eschewed it), but there's no denying that he was a great learner, he had learned a lot, and he offered up quite insightful and informed writings.  What label you wish to apply above and beyond those basic facts is basically a semantic issue.  He was certainly not credentialed in the way of those who typically get called "intellectuals" but he certainly could match many an intellectual for depth and breadth of knowledge, mastery of language, and subtlety of thought.  So, while it would be a mistake to cite a wise longshoreman if I'm looking to defend credentialed intellectuals (or at least credentialed and self-styled "intellectuals") I think it is quite proper to look to Hoffer if I want to speak up for the value of deep thought over superficial fads.

Let's find out if he agrees with me.

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