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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
No. 14:  

Character Determines Fate

For a list of titles relevant to the September 11th hijackings, please click here.

American Sphinx
American Sphinx
by Joseph J. Ellis

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Democracy in America
in America

by Alexis de Tocqueville

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
by Hunter S. Thompson

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In the past three weeks, Americans have become understandably anxious about the future. In response, our customers have been increasingly eager to learn as much as possible about Islam, the Middle East, Central Asia, terrorism, and myriad related subjects. This week, it's next to (though not quite) impossible to find a book on any of these topics.

Yet perhaps a book about Osama bin Laden isn't the best place to start anyway. If, as Heraclitus believed, "character determines fate," then maybe the outcome of the coming months will be determined more by who we are than by what we do. Which of course begs the question.

But who we are is notoriously difficult to pin down. Universities have entire departments devoted to the question. Powell's has aisles of books on the subject. With so many titles to choose from, though, it can be difficult to know what to read. The following three titles by no means present a comprehensive overview of the American psyche. They do, though, offer a place to start.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis

No other American has had as significant a role in defining bedrock American values as the man who drafted the most influential sentence in American history: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Thomas Jefferson has attained mythic status in the American pantheon. As an icon of Freedom, Liberty, and Democracy, he is routinely invoked by advocates of all creeds and political persuasions: left, right, religious, scientific, etc.

But Jefferson, the man, is more troubling, one of the most contradictory personalities in our history. The same man who believed passionately in the fundamental right of every individual to determine his own fate owned more than two hundred slaves. The same man who most eloquently declared the fundamental equality of all men was an elitist spendthrift. The same man who was a staunch opponent of racial integration had a long term sexual relationship with one of his black slaves.

Brilliant but self-deluded, idealistic but self-contradictory, passionate but undisciplined Thomas Jefferson, in many respects, embodied the paradoxical nature of the country he helped found. And like America, he tends to be either lionized or vilified. However, for readers interested in a less polemical, more complex view, Joseph Ellis's prize-winning biography presents a thoughtful, evenhanded appraisal of the relationship between Jefferson the man and Jefferson the icon.

One of the most celebrated biographies of recent years, American Sphinx is eminently readable both in the elegance of its prose and the modesty of its length. In less than 400 pages (a small miracle in itself, given the current penchant for exhaustive, exhausting 1,500-page biographies) the reader is given an efficient tour of Thomas Jefferson's life as well as a balanced and inspiring appraisal of his legacy. Ellis never shies away from the perplexing conundrums of Jefferson's character. Yet he also demonstrates eloquently that greatness and human weakness are not mutually exclusive.

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

It's appropriate to think of Thomas Jefferson as a "founding father." Like a parent, he helped create and shepherd the new nation, and his influence on the American psyche has remained fundamental. But once the young republic had left the nest, so to speak, it also began to redefine itself according to its own disposition.

The most insightful, comprehensive, and relevant book ever written about the American character was first published less than ten years after Jefferson's death in 1826. Yet the country portrayed in Alexis de Tocqueville's classic Democracy in America had already diverged significantly from the path set by Jefferson. In the early nineteenth century, under the influence of the Jacksonian Democrats, Americans modified their understanding of the ideals that had inspired the revolution: equality, freedom, democracy, and liberty.

In contrast to Jefferson's aristocratic views, Americans now equated equality with freedom, and democracy with liberty. For a French aristocrat this was an odd way to perceive these ideas. Tocqueville felt that being equal was not the same as being free, and that majority rule actually subverted personal liberty. But he also realized that these values animated the American democracy he visited, and with remarkable insight detailed how they influenced, for better or worse, every aspect of American life. His analysis has remained pertinent precisely because these ideas have continued to remain fundamental to Americans ever since his visit 170 years ago.

Democracy in America is particularly fascinating today because so many of the strengths and weaknesses that Tocqueville identified in the American system persist to this day, and so many of his predictions for the future of the American democracy have proven accurate. Take that, Nostradamus.

÷ ÷ ÷

I wanted to conclude my trio of books about the American character with something contemporary, but I had a hard time deciding on a title. I thought of former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham's memoir, Personal History, because Graham embodied so many of the best aspects of the American character. I considered recommending a couple of inspiring biographies of great Americans: perhaps Blanche Wiesen Cook's excellent Eleanor Roosevelt (too long) or Stephen B. Oates's authoritative biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Let the Trumpet Sound. Maybe a Great American Novel or two it would have been appropriate to pair one from each of our two living Nobel laureates, say, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.

But in the end, though these are all excellent choices, I felt the list as a whole would ring false. This is, after all, America. No matter how idealistic, how powerful, how "complex," this is also the country that produced Rush Limbaugh, Ken Kesey, the Unibomber, and all four Marx brothers. There are more than a few loose screws rattling around in the bottom of America's toolbox. And thank God. It gives us personality. So I've made my third book a classic satire from our most brilliant madman.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a romp through the mind of a lunatic's lunatic, a specialist. Thompson is both a journalist and a drug fiend. He is also one of the sharpest observers we have of contemporary America.

When Thompson and his Samoan lawyer leave LA and head for Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race for a sports magazine, they take with them a weekend's supply of drugs:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers....Also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyles....

They begin ingesting these drugs as though engaged in a Herculean labor. Naturally, they do a less thorough job covering the "Mint 400." It doesn't really matter. Thompson is interested in a journalism of a very different sort. He's not interested in reporting on motorcycle races, but in penetrating into the heart of America itself.

As his title implies, what he finds isn't pretty. It is, though, very entertaining. Thompson is a brilliant satirist, so Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is as hilarious as it is horrifying, a picaresque romp through hell. But in Thompson's Inferno, Virgil is guzzling rum, dropping acid, and going out of his frickin' mind.

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It's hard to imagine that Thomas Jefferson would have liked Hunter Thompson much. It's easy enough, though, to find a connection between the two. Jefferson was an effective advocate for individual freedom and a dogged enemy of governmental intrusion in citizens' lives. Two hundred years later, Thompson has taken these values to such an extreme he makes Jefferson look like a Redcoat. Ironically though, if Tocqueville was right, the greatest danger to our individual freedoms may be democracy itself:

No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country....War does not always give over democratic communities to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil governmnet; it must almost compulsorily concentrate the direction of all men and the management of all things in the hands of the administration. If it lead not to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it. 


For a list of titles relevant to the September 11th hijackings, please click here.

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