An Intellectual Starter Kit
Five easy steps to becoming well-read.
This is a column for someone who wants to enter the world of ideas but doesn’t know where to start. Recently I’ve received emails from readers, young people in particular, who have read my book or heard me on a podcast and want to learn more about the personalities and principles behind the American right and conservative movement. They want to know how past intellectuals studied, wrote, argued, and worked.
Young people have many ways to engage in politics and debate — there is social media, of course, as well as newsletters and audio and video interviews — but not as many ways to acquire the historical and intellectual background that informs our politics and frames our debates. And though I have recommended books before, a reading list isn’t enough. Here are a few other lifehacks and resources that I rely on. They may help you too.
Hug a Generalist. The New York Intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century — a tradition that extends from Sidney Hook and Lionel Trilling to Norman Podhoretz and Susan Sontag — operated from a base of general knowledge about literature, philosophy, and politics. They were familiar with the Western canon even when they disagreed with its authors or, in the case of Sontag, tried to subvert it. Today that foundation is gone.
Not everyone has the chance to study a core curriculum in places such as Columbia or St. John’s College. But a familiarity with the basic concepts, insights, and divisions within Western thought is essential to figuring out where our global civilization might go next. If you want to obtain your own set of intellectual building blocks, try reading David Denby’s Great Books, Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, and Judy Jones and William Wilson’s An Incomplete Education.
You can also use the writing of critics such as Michael Dirda and Joseph Epstein as intellectual springboards. Over the years Dirda and Epstein have taught me as much as, if not more than, my best teachers. Start with Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure and Epstein’s A Literary Education and underline the names of unfamiliar authors and titles as you go along. By reading Dirda and Epstein, you will build up a library of cultural references that is essential for any aspiring wordsmith. The best part is that Dirda and Epstein are not only enlightening. They are also enjoyable.
Other resources for general knowledge include the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s websites TheGreatThinkers.org and ContemporaryThinkers.org, the huge video libraries available at C-SPAN.org and CharlieRose.com, Michael and Genevieve Sugrue’s excellent Idea Store podcast, and Aaron MacLean’s gripping School of War.
Don’t Skip the Notes. “It is the books you have read, as much as the people you have met, that constitute autobiography,” writes Robert D. Kaplan in his engrossing new travelogue Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. Reading Kaplan, I am reminded that the most important pages of any volume are found in the bibliography. For someone interested in ideas, one book ought to lead to several others.
Endnotes point you in the direction of further study. They reveal the influences behind an author. The best way to learn about a subject is to identify its major text — in my field, for example, George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 — and then, after you finish it, read each of the books and articles it cites. It won’t be long before you are an expert. The only downside is that books will take over your house.
Explore the Archives. I spent hours as a young journalist reading the back issues of the Weekly Standard. I was on a mission: I wanted to know how the authors I admired structured their articles. How did they begin a story, how did they transition from paragraph to paragraph, how did they build to a climax or conclusion? I also wanted to figure out what sort of pieces made it into the magazine. An unexpected benefit was that I ended up learning a lot about American politics in the 1990s.
If a young writer wants an editor to take his ideas seriously, he ought to demonstrate familiarity with the content and style of the editor’s publication. The only way to acquire such knowledge is through reading the archives. The good news is that the archives of many intellectual and political journals are online. (You may have to spend money on a subscription.) Here, for instance, is the Standard’s archive. Here is Commentary’s. The complete Public Interest and National Affairs can be found here. All of Partisan Review — the flagship publication of the New York Intellectuals and my standard for literary journalism — is available here. And, lest I come across as favoring one side of the political spectrum, here is the New York Review of Books.
Keep a Commonplace Book. A commonplace book is a journal in which a writer transcribes quotations from his reading. It becomes a source of reflection and inspiration and a handy resource while writing. Some commonplace books are in print — my favorites are W.H. Auden’s, E.M. Forster’s, and Dwight Garner’s. There are also volumes that are essentially commonplace books published under different guises: Both Cyril Connolly’s Unquiet Grave and David Markson’s Reader’s Block are worth obtaining.
Since 2012, I have used a Google doc as my own commonplace book. Looking over it now, I see that I haven’t added to it in a while, though it is 279 pages long. (I read a lot.) It contains quotations from Kenneth Minogue, Yuval Levin, Nathan Glazer, Robert Nisbet, and a whole lot of James Burnham and Irving Kristol.
Here, for instance, is a random entry from Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence: “In public controversies the side that is always giving you reasons why something can’t be done, and endlessly telling you that the popular view isn’t sufficiently ‘subtle,’ ‘complex,’ ‘sophisticated,’ or ‘nuanced’ — that is the side that doesn’t want you to know what it is doing, and is not to be trusted.” It’s what Mead would call a “Jacksonian” sentiment. And a true one.
Seek Opportunity. There are plenty of summer programs, as well as post-graduate fellowships, that may be of interest to students on the center-right. At the American Enterprise Institute, where I work, there is the Summer Honors Program. The other day I spoke to the Hudson Political Studies program. And I teach for the Hertog Foundation, which offers programming throughout the year. For recent graduates and young professionals, there is also The Public Interest Fellowship and its wide range of instructional, employment, and networking opportunities.
All these programs look to fill the gaps in a student’s college education. All of them combine theory and practice in the study of politics and government. All of them are filled with energetic and impressive young people. I wish they had been around twenty years ago when I was in school. They weren’t, though, and in the years since graduation I assembled the grab-bag of resources and techniques described here. They have worked for me. Now it’s your turn.
Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the founding editor of The Washington Free Beacon. For more from the Free Beacon, sign up free of charge for the Morning Beacon email.
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