At the age of ten, while running on my family’s patio I slipped and put my arm through the window of the kitchen door. I paused to marvel. I hadn’t cut myself. But when I saw shards of glass in the frame, I jerked away, leaving a two-inch gash in my forearm. My mother telephoned for someone to watch my sister, and then for a doctor who might open his office on a Sunday. She sat me in front of the TV and wrapped my arm in a yellow beach towel, which soon turned dark red, so leaden with blood that it made a squishing noise when I moved. As he stitched up my arm, the doctor muttered that if the cut had been another centimeter toward my wrist, I’d be dead already. At that point, I assumed I bled out in an alternate universe. I was a bit faint and in something of a science fictional mood.
That mood owed to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (MGM, 1960), starring Rod Taylor, the entirety of which I watched while almost bleeding out. As I was dragged away from the TV, George had just made his final leap into the future. His housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett, noted that nothing was missing from his study except three books she could not identify. Evidently, George figured they’d help him save the fairy-like Eloi from the dreaded Morlocks, who would emerge now and again from underground caves to hunt them for food. The Eloi suffered from an oddly blissful ignorance punctuated only by a fear of Morlocks. They lacked perspective (and books).
Which three books would you take to steel our future civilization against its subterranean enemies? My question departs slightly from Mrs. Watchett’s. I don’t refer to humanoids living so far in the future that they can’t possibly remember us but, rather, to the imminent citizens of our own civilization. We must be pragmatic, but we can also afford to be relational. Let’s pick books that explain what’s going on now, where we come from, and where we’re headed, and which can connect with as many of us as possible in the Western Hemisphere. Some day we should study Chinese, but let’s attend first to our domestic reality. And let’s be honest; we’re a mess. But we’re also Western, democratic, and Hispano-American, so let’s pick books with these three frames in mind.
Five years later, in the fall of 1981, I returned from my first day of high school in Houston and announced to my family that I’d decided to study French as my second language. This triggered my parents’ only educational intervention. I made good grades, so Bob and Mary saw no reason to worry. They read to me early in life, and my father did a lot of math with me. He was a petroleum engineer and a dentist, a driller of holes; so, he knew the importance of numbers and vectors. I read on my own soon enough, and once I got through calculus, nobody thought I wouldn’t go to college. If I kept up my grades, I was free to do as I pleased in my adolescence. That policy had other costs, but I suspect what seemed like intellectual freedom planted the seeds of good habits that have served me well.
In 1981, however, a young Texan deciding to study French was met with force. My parents were fans of Milton Friedman; they echoed but modified his show on PBS: “You’re free to choose … if you choose right.” Intellectual freedom? I think so, but I’m uncertain to this day because of that single intervention. Decisive wisdom hit me hard; there was no debate. Alongside Shakespeare, Shelley, Poe, Melville, Anderson, and Homer, Aristotle, and Plato in translation, I would read Borges, Cortázar, and Valenzuela in their native tongue, not Hugo or Beauvoir.
Decades after graduating from the University of Virginia, having taught Renaissance literature at several institutions, and even other subjects in Spanish for which I felt roundly unprepared—economics, Euclid, the Vietnam War—only now can I honestly say that Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605/15) is one of the best ways to understand humanity.
Why do I say this? Self-interest in both senses. I’m an expert on this text due to the variety and severity of the institutions where I’ve taught it. Buy my book to learn what you need to know about Don Quijote. Beyond that, I have three young nephews. I believe Cervantes’s novel improves our odds of approaching rational public discourse. The wealth of human topics in Don Quijote is astounding: humor, heartache, fear, sorrow, politics, memory, parenting, race, class, economics, foreign policy, dreams, love, accounting, religion, education, freedom, beauty, sex, the law, and more. Did you know the hidalgo plays music and sings like Elvis? Did you know Sierra Morena is to Barcelona what Florida is to San Francisco? Did you know Sancho Panza’s first task as governor is to deal with the effects of inflationary monetary policy?
Howard Mancing once said that Don Quijote is about everything. I might have scoffed at that a decade ago, but not now. It’s over 1,000 pages, but its compounding insights are worth it. It’s funny, it appeals to different levels of reader, its meanings adjust to us as we age. Moreover, its early modern status means that neither linguistic-cultural group straddling the Rio Bravo has an advantage deciphering it. In his youth, Borges preferred the English translation because the original Spanish inhibited his comprehension. For today’s Spanish speakers, Andrés Trapiello’s modern transcription performs this trick. Thus, reciprocal linguistic and intellectual attitudes can share the same textual playing field. That’s also what the novel is about. As Harold Bloom observed, Cervantes’s legacy is two characters in dialogue. High and low, old and new, cerebral and physical learn to coexist.
Then there’s Cervantes’s perspectivism. Different characters riddle the text with contrary observations. Importantly, the viewpoints of women dominate Don Quijote. Nieces, lovers, matriarchs, maids, estate managers, political leaders, and even goddesses qualify the impulses of a sea of broken male characters. Finally, Cervantes’s novel influenced minds that made America great. The classical liberals of England, France, and the United States found Don Quijote vital (for a brief review see my book’s introduction), and Cervantes and the Salamancan scholastics marked each other such that the hidalgo and his squire are integral to Iberoamerica.
Given the origins of my vague reasoning skills in Texas, Virginia, Spain, and Guatemala, it’s no surprise that the first book I’d take to an Eloi lover would be the first modern novel. More interesting is the fact that I’ve just figured out what the other two books must be. I write now with no financial stake and no status to gain. I write for New World readers—especially parents and teachers—to spare them the hassle of having to decide as I did, i.e., by trial and error, the way we do most things in this hemisphere.
It’s a bug and a feature of America that nobody helps us but ourselves. Mortimer Adler and Allan Bloom lamented that Americans didn’t read lists of books that would overflow the ancient library at Alexandria. Ridiculous. I myself have read far too much for one American life. I don’t say this proudly, nor do I mean I’ve read more than others. I mean I’ve read more than ought to be expected of anyone in a hyper-democracy. Most Americans can’t afford lifelong exercises in personal improvement via continuous reading. We wouldn’t be Americans if we did; we’d be Europeans, and the continental type, i.e., the ones that live well but contribute little to the world beyond wars, food, and art. War is not an unworthy endeavor, and food and art are musts, but if the goal is to get along in life, most of us should follow Wells and read three books. They’re not easy. We must read them carefully. But they’re doable.
The second book I want for my harried but brown Eloi near the Panama Canal is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835/40). No book comes anywhere near Tocqueville’s assessment of the causes and consequences of New World democracy. He analyzes all of us, everything from our sexualities to our convoluted racisms to our collective insanities. He shows us surfing a tidal wave of liberation that also leaves us corrupt and psychologically mutilated (see Jay, Federalist 64). Tocqueville explains our American character: our fears, desires, and glories, our penchant for risk, and our utter inability to think clearly under most circumstances, all in concert with our amazing ability to adapt and improvise when people from other cultures would usually surrender or sit on their hands and wait for the government to do something.
It’s wrong to think Tocqueville only addresses Anglo culture. The French historian, sociologist, and political scientist foresaw a convergence between the United States and Mexico, and he directed his lessons at us both. This is why as wondrous bonuses in his book we get deep takes on The Federalist Papers and Don Quijote. Tocqueville also explains art, love, and work in the New World, the strange shifts in the degree and purpose of warfare at the advent of mass democracies, and why the American mind is so fun but also noisy and arrogant. He devotes pages to the ways democracy lifts us up even as it steamrolls us, especially Indians, blacks, and women. Finally, Tocqueville’s ominous anticipations of Huxley and Orwell highlight the dangers of affluence and the oppressive, perverted effects of a democratic mindset at scale. The madness of woke culture, our wild array of religious cults, and our hotheaded self-righteousness, all of these find both precedent and explanation in Democracy in America.
My third book returns to the origins of everything Western. Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War (5th Century BC) is likely the greatest book written by one author. I say this as a Cervantes scholar who had another preference for decades. Having finally tackled Thucydides, I’ll admit that his book reduced me to tears of shame. Why did I not read this long ago? The answer is that I’m an American, and nobody gives you this list of the three most important books you should read. You’re at the mercy of a hurricane of cultural relativity. And you watch too much TV, and too many cat videos online.
Thucydides covers both the madness of democratic mobs and the complexity of the most sophisticated minds of ancient Greece. He ponders the calm nobility of Brasidas, Nicias, and Demosthenes, the puerile, inept arrogance of Cleon and Astyochus, and the conniving yet justifiably vindictive genius of Alcibiades. The book begins with global visions of how Athens and Sparta drag each other into a struggle they’re constitutionally destined to have. It then climaxes in a series of melodramatic meltdowns at Athens. And the self-conscious authorial brilliance of Thucydides punctuates it all. His book isn’t history as we imagine that genre; it’s an artistic masterpiece about the human self. Over the course of a century, Greece emerges like a beacon of freedom after its struggle with Persia, and then it overreaches and dissolves back into a muddled web of contradictions along the coast of Ionia. The cycles of history, the intimate thoughts and pathologies that link desire, war, and politics. As Hispano-Americans, we need to read Cervantes and Tocqueville. But after Thucydides, you realize you only wanted the Spaniard and the Frenchman to help you understand the Greek. As human beings who seek to appreciate life, Thucydides was all we needed. The crushing effects of inter-caste rivalries; the staggering mistake of a thalassocracy that rejects its own rituals; the insanity and hubris that plague urban environments; and, finally, the deliberate cruelty spawned by phobos. Thucydides renders it all in ways that bring everyone back down to earth. To read him is exhausting and exhilarating.
Cervantes, Tocqueville, and Thucydides are all you need to read. I’m being hyperbolic, but not really. Tracing the trajectory of Western Civilization, explaining everything from plagues to politics, defining massive textual fields like History, Novel, and Sociology, hinting at the deeper meanings of sacrifice and religion, what these books ponder most of all is the fleeting and misunderstood concept of justice.
Put another way, these texts circle democracy’s greatest dilemma. Since we’re all so damned equal, how do we salvage personal dignity? Given the banality of those of us who rightly think ourselves to be the same, how can we imagine, much less sustain, what Tocqueville calls “democratic honor”? Thucydides hesitates on the island of Thasos only to watch Brasidas and Cleon destroy each other at Amphipolis. Tocqueville analyzes the incongruity of slavery in the American South and then signals the slaughter unleashed by the French Revolution. Cervantes considers how submission and satisfaction debase and erase aristocratic poise. Conflict between the sociological power of our common rights and the saving grace of our individual desires makes us who we are. How can we free ourselves in the most awesomely creative ways while keeping ourselves from each other’s throats? This basic problem rankles and fires the geniuses who wrote these books.
Technology is what keeps this problem front and center, and why we can’t ever get past it. How do we navigate the fact that a substantial cost of freedom is the constant creation of new forms of tyranny? Tocqueville signals this dynamic at the advent of modernity. The social costs of freedom surround us still: drug overdoses, street violence, loneliness, obesity, inflation, ignorance, just to name a few. Cervantes, too, spies life’s complexity. Often Don Quijote and Sancho Panza barely understand each other; their dialogues are awkward compromises that buckle under scrutiny, and their first major conflict concerns the nature of windmills. Both Tocqueville and Cervantes show freedom ravaging us with our own inventions. Every time we overcome a new form of tyranny, we pay a price. A war on terror spawns a surveillance state; a virus turns the surveillance state into an authoritarian nanny state; educating a populace leaves us fragile and confused. Like the printing press, the internet brings knowledge, but it also bewilders us and seduces us into conflict. One man’s utopian bounty is another’s deathly nightmare.
But Tocqueville’s and Cervantes’s books are just two and four centuries old. Thucydides wrote twenty-five centuries ago; yet his implications for our world persist. Here’s just one cutting insight from an ancient general and artist who sensed how both individuals and nations will always behave. Does having an enemy allow the national cohesion necessary for good governance? Or do our governors always conjure national enemies in order to keep power? The issue is a labyrinth of competing interests and historical circumstance, and it’s the essence of what drives Thucydides to write in the first place.
Imagine, if you will, students and professors at Oxford College in 1981, mere months before the Falklands War. They debated the meaning of the following passage from Thucydides, without reaching a definitive conclusion: “It was during the first period of this constitution that the Athenians appear to have enjoyed the best government that they ever did, at least in my time. For the fusion of the high and the low was effected with judgment, and this was what first enabled the state to raise up her head after her manifold disasters” (8.97.2).
What exactly was Thucydides thinking? What is he telling us about the relation between good governance and war? Do smart governors use war to unite their people? Or do threats by national enemies create the urgency required for good governance? It’s the climactic moment of Thucydides’s work, but it also reads like a confession. The words correspond with inverted precision to his ambivalence about the high and the low represented by Brasidas and Cleon at Amphipolis. It’s no wonder the author of the greatest book ever written was viewed with suspicion and exiled from his native Athens. And there’s no answer to any of this waiting for us just over the horizon. Did not England (Thatcher) enable her domestic reforms by mobilizing against Argentina? Did not Argentina (Galtieri) try to put a final nail in an ongoing insurrection by tapping national pride? And when we consider America (Reagan) possibly invoking the Monroe Doctrine in the context of the Cold War, we’re forced to ask which was more important: fighting communism in Latin America or preserving our ability to launch missiles into the USSR from Diego Garcia?
This has been an appeal for a simplified canon built around a core of three big texts. Given the psychological static of modern life, we owe young people deep dives into these books from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. We must demonstrate why they’re important, why we want to read them together, and carefully and in parts, discussing them as we go. Many will object that race, gender, class, or culture are not sufficiently “represented” here. Nonsense. These themes appear in all three. Finally, none of this precludes jumping next to the Popol Vuh, Moby-Dick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or the Bible in search of lessons about clashing cultures, ethnicities, and races. I must admit, however, that I would broach the issue of gender first: María de Zayas y Sotomayor and Mary Wollstonecraft (or John Stuart Mill).
We need efficiency in the humanities. Those with time and means can read on; most of us must keep things simple and stick to skills-based and STEM courses. I confess to years of canonical ignorance, but I also note that there’s a cost to reading everything; we risk “bleeding out.” Decaying cultural conditions, along with rapid technological change and a looming journey to Mars, make reading everything tantamount to reading nothing, or at least reading nothing together. To pick three big books is to recognize that we need a handful of thick common references. Even then, books alone won’t solve our problems. Perhaps the best defense of my textual trinity is the weakest one. As a self-taught American who wallowed in ignorance for decades, I argue these books allow the solace of understanding. The alternatives are frustration and nihilism. Sometimes knowing why things happen lets you take a breath, manifest civility toward others, and then say to them what they need to hear, namely, that democracy ought not mean equality of outcomes. Our individual rights and self-respect must mark the limits of the power of the mob. If our Hispano-American confederation, which already exists de facto, can take these values to Mars, then we’ll be okay, no matter what artificial intelligence or Chinese Marxism-Leninism throw at us. I wager we’ll make them and ourselves better for engaging with what it means to be free to choose to read.
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