We’ll grapple with the death of the universe long before The New York Times stops running folksy features with bad men in politics. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse is in the paper’s books section today talking about his highly-literate family of geniuses.
In the interview, Sasse spends an inordinate amount of time discussing, somewhat psychotically, what he calls his “family canon” of essential books and the agonizing process of deciding what titles to add and drop from the “canon.” Oh, also, it’s deeply unclear if he’s ever read a book written by a person of color, since all of of the 33 books he specifically mentions are by white authors.
Things get weird after an innocuous question about whether there are any books “all American children should read” (smacks of socialism!!). Sasse does indeed have ideas, according to the Times (emphasis mine):
I devoted a chapter of “The Vanishing American Adult” to trying to build a “five-foot bookshelf” — of 60 books — that we would regard as a kind of evolving “family canon.” I wrestled there with how I think the canon fights often devolve into an endless argument about what book or identity group is being excluded at the arbitrary line between book 60 and 61, or between book 200 and 201. So I want to be clear that I don’t think our “family canon” is the only canon for every American family, but I do strongly believe that every American family should be developing their own canon of books they read together and repeatedly — and moreover that we should be comparing our lists with those of our neighbors and fellow citizens, so that we might enrich one another.
As we considered a thousand-plus candidate books for our canon, we ultimately decided to segment that work by limiting ourselves to 12 categories with a maximum of five books each. Our categories include big themes like: God, Greek Roots, Shakespeare, the American Idea, Markets, American Fiction, a Humanistic Perspective on Science, etc. Our category on Tyrants and Totalitarianism, for example, includes Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” F. A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and “The Communist Manifesto,” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Sasse, ever the thinking man’s right-winger, tries to head off this criticism at the pass by saying that, OF COURSE, we could easily be drawn into “an endless argument” about what “identity group” is perhaps entirely absent from a family’s given “canon.” And what a pointless exercise that would be, says the gentleman from Nebraska!
Also, imagine how drunk on the conservative Kool-Aid you have to be to force whole categories of books around themes like “Markets” on your kids. Did Sasse’s book about the “vanishing American adult” make the cut for “Tyrants and Totalitarianism”? Perhaps too soon to tell, give it another six years!
Many hundreds of words into the feature, Sasse finally mentions that among his dream guests for a “literary dinner party” are Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass, although he doesn’t cite their books or boast of their place in his family canon.
Finally, after reading on and on, we’re rewarded with this insufferable nonsense (emphasis in the original):
Are there genres you avoid?
I intentionally read no modern fiction. I wish it weren’t so, but life is short, work is full and kids are under our roof only for a short time. When I read fiction, I want a community of discourse to vouch for the fact that it’s already stood the test of a bit of time.
It’s true: Life is short, and I’ve just spent this much of it internalizing what Ben Sasse reads. Give thanks you’ve gotten the condensed version.