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by William H. Benson

January 11, 2007

     In last Sunday’s New York Times “Book Review” section, P. J. O’Rourke reviewed Adam Smith’s massive work on economics The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776.  The publisher’s idea was to give an often-cited but rarely-read classic to a current writer who would then solidify that classic’s major ideas into two or three hundred pages.  The first was P. J. O’Rourke’s On “The Wealth of Nations”, and is to be soon followed by the Koran and Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

     This publishing venture is an extension of that long and growing list of “The Idiot’s Guide to (whatever)“ and also “(whatever) for Dummies.”  Marketing gurus know that people want to learn but that they do not want to devote the time or energy required to thoroughly know a subject by reading and rereading it and by working at it with a passion.  People falsely believe that the abridged version is the shortcut to accomplishment.

     But certain tomes cry out for a quicker ending: Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamozov, and The Tales of the Genji.  An abbreviated format of those heavyweights would catch more readers.  As usual, brevity is in short supply these days, especially when one considers that publishers release some 10,000 novels every year in this country alone.

     Quality is a different matter.  It is like television channels: dozens to choose from, but nothing worth watching.  Christian Wilman, the editor of Poetry magazine, wrote in an editorial entitled “In Praise of Rareness,” “The more respect you have for poetry, the less of it you will find adequate to your taste and needs.”  The same can be said for prose.

     But certain other works should not be filtered through a modern writer.  Every American should read for her or himself Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau and James Michener and Willa Cather and a host of superior American writers.

     And absolutely no person should stand as mediator between the reader and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words:  “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion. . . . Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string. . . . Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. . . . A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.  With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

     Cut those words and they would bleed, a phrase that Emerson himself could say.

     Another work that every American should read on their own, without deciphering is Common Sense.  On January 10, 1776 the first edition of Thomas Paine’s shout for independence arrived on the streets of Philadelphia, and soon the British colonists in America were considering revolting against Parliament in England and declaring their independence from the British crown.

     The historian Paul Johnson said that Thomas Paine was “a man with a grudge against society, a spectacular grumbler, and in a later age he would have become a trade union leader or a back-room lawyer.”  Above that, Paine had the talent of writing at lightning speed in a white heat a work of political philosophy that is still highly readable.  An edition is only 56 pages long: in this case, the shortened edition is the actual edition.

     Paine wrote: “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that every lived. . . . But, admitting that we were all of English descent, what does it amount to?  Nothing. . . . . Europe is too thickly planted with Kingdoms to be long at peace, and whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign power, the trade of America goes to ruin, because of her connection with Britain.”  And so he argues for revolution and independence.

     When common sense steps forward and makes an appearance, it is usually in an abbreviated form, a rare thing worthy of praise.