Straight Talk

Dec. 21, 2004
If books rule the world, the world's in trouble.

Voltaire said, "Books rule the world." That was back in the world of the 1700s. Would he say the same thing in today's world? At a time when online booksellers are booming, and coffee-house bookstores have loads of customers, I wonder if books aren't at their weakest point ever. Instead of shaping our minds, they are simply occupying our minds. No education, please, just entertainment. As a CEO, you may be tempted to limit your reading to books that will either make you a better businessperson or keep you up to date on the latest in popular culture. But I say this: Go back to the classics. CEOs, among many other things, must be thinkers. What better way to improve this essential skill than to expose yourself to other great thinkers? Here are some suggestions:

  • Robert R. Downs, former president of the American Library Assn., asked three literary experts to list the books published in the first 50 years of the 20th century that had the greatest influence on the American people. John Dewey, Charles Beard, and Edward Weeks took up the challenge and each prepared a list of 50 titles. Only four books appeared on all three lists: Das Kapital by Karl Marx, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, The Golden Bough by James Frazer, and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.
  • When Malcom Cowley and Bernard Smith polled the nation's leading educators, critics, and literati of their day (the 1930s), the following were named as "The Books That Changed Our Minds": Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, Henry Adams' The Education of Henry Adams, Frederick Jackson Turner's The Frontier in American History, William Sumner's Folkways, Thorstein Veblen's Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America, John Dewey's Studies in Logical Theory, Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, V.L. Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought, Vladimir Lenin's State and Revolution, and Spengler's The Decline of the West.
  • Now I don't know how many of you have read any of these books. I confess that I have read five and have referred on rare occasions to two others. However, when I compared my reading habits to those of the great majority of the world's readers, I did very well. I have read nine of the "Ten Best Selling Books of All Time" as reported by Russell Ash in his book The Top Ten of Everything (1994, DK Publishing Inc.).
These are: The Bible, 6 billion copies; Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, 800 million copies; Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book, 100 million copies; The Guinness Book of World Records, 80 million copies; Elbert Hubbard's Message to Garcia, 40 million to 50 million copies; The World Almanac, more than 40 million copies; Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care, 39.2 million copies; Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, 30 million copies; and Charles Sheldon's In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do, 28.5 million copies. My point is that today, books do not rule the world as they once did. If Voltaire's quote were true today, the world would be in deep trouble. Great books that once titillated great thoughts are being overwhelmed by small books that titillate trivia. A "dumbing down" process is at work. Americans are developing a sound-bite mentality. We are becoming a nation of quick answers and easy solutions in which fast food is preferred to good food, where fast tracks are preferred to true facts, where a fast buck is preferred to an honest buck, and where right-now news is preferred to lasting views. In this frenzied world, too quick is rarely quick enough. This is nowhere more apparent than in our choices of books. Great thoughts, encouraged by great books, become great acts. What we need today are some greater books. And some smarter readers to read them. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc. and anIWcontributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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