Some books are great: Middlemarch by George Eliot, for example, or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. They’re historically important, influential, and seminal. But the monuments of Western culture are not the same as personal touchstones. It’s not just the intrinsic value of certain books—their “greatness”—that makes them existentially arresting; it’s also the time and place when they happen to fall into our hands.
That’s why mediocre books, or at least merely good books, can be important for us if we read them at the right time and in the right place. The converse is true as well; truly great books can have little existential potency. As an undergraduate I read Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. My soul was not stirred by new discoveries. I found myself merely pleased to know the source of what had become common wisdom by 1980.
I read Herman Hesse and J. D. Salinger at a teenager. Like many others I thrilled to their intimations of philosophy. But they did not become touchstones, perhaps because I quickly grew out of the superficial angst and feelings of alienation that I was told should characterize the life of a serious teenager. Instead, my first important book was The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann.
I read it while living as a climbing bum in Yosemite Valley in the late 1970s. The title was of the sort to attract a climber’s attention. And the book’s many pages promised hours of diversion. What I got instead was a modicum of self-knowledge. Hans Castorp, the main character, goes to visit a relative at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Switzerland, and ends up staying indefinitely. Situated literally above everyday concerns about career, family, and class, his life is pleasantly suspended. Such is the mountain’s magic. Yet, as Mann develops the story over hundreds of pages, the mountain turns out to work a black magic of self-deception and false innocence. The novel did not diminish Yosemite’s seductions, but it allowed me for the first time to see the darkness in my dreams.
Ousmane Sembène was best known as a film director, but it was his cinematic novel, God’s Bits of Wood, that exercised a profound influence on me. The novel tells the story of a railroad strike in Senegal. In it questions of justice naturally come to the fore, but the struggle is as much spiritual as political. The novel ends not with the triumph of justice, but instead of love. On the final page, one of the characters sings a line that I’ve repeated to myself countless times since reading the book more than thirty years ago: “Happy is the man who fights without hatred.”
Lady Wisdom uses serendipity, and some of the most important books I’ve read in my life were not the ones I was looking for: Raymond Aron’s memoirs, for example, or even better, Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks, which for no particular reason I bought at a used book store on Morningside Heights. Podhoretz tells of his migration from left to right—and of the bitter responses of his longtime literary and ideological companions to his new convictions. They could countenance many sins in their friends, but not conservatism.
My response to Breaking Ranks illustrates the truth that a book that is by no means great can have great influence if read by the right person at the right time. I was a college senior, and an incipient religious seriousness was setting me outside the dominant currents of late-twentieth-century American liberalism. I was learning that the academic and intellectual establishment in American could tolerate and even indulge many modes of transgression, but not ideological non-conformity. Breaking Ranks bucked me up and gave me a bit more courage to follow my conscience.
In his final semester before retirement, Karl Barth broke his pattern of lecturing on the sequence of topics that make up his unfinished Church Dogmatics. He instead delivered lectures on the vocation of the theologian, published as Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, one of the minor classics of twentieth-century theology. This book confirmed my decision to pursue graduate study in theology, inspiring me with the confidence that it would not only be worthwhile but fröhlich—joyful.
In the summer before beginning graduate study I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. There are greater spiritual classics, but it was this book that first gave me intimations of a profound truth that took me more than a decade to recognize in full: theology requires a discipline of the soul, not just the mind.
There are other personal touchstones. Most populate my younger years. That’s in part because when we’re young we’re unformed, and thus books can work on us in deep and profound ways. But some come later, often in unlikely alliances invading my mind to install new thoughts. It was Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic, Carlos Ginzburg’s Wooden Eyes, and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim that helped me see how “critical thinking” functions as a postmodern spiritual therapy, disenchanting life for the sake of renewing it.
That said, as an adult I’ve suffered from a peril that faces someone who makes a living with books. St. Augustine distinguished between use and enjoyment. The former is our way of treating things as raw material for our own purposes, while the later is opens us to enchantment and thus transformation. Teacher, scholar, and now magazine editor, when it comes to books I’m a heavy user. I want things from them—ideas that I can use in a column, for example.
Books are only great in a personal sense if they, or the circumstances—it’s hard to know why it happens—reverse this relation. I started The Magic Mountain imagining myself in control. I planned to use the book to entertain myself during the evening hours at the campsite. But soon enough Mann’s novel bewitched me, and I was a patient operated upon by a master surgeon, which is what St. Augustine’s sense of enjoyment brings about. It’s this vulnerability to influence, an anesthesia to the self and its purposes—that we need to cultivate if books are to be important for us.
R.R. Reno is editor of First Things . He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .