David Brooks, in “The Sydney Awards: Part I” (New York Times, Dec. 19, 2011), selects the “best magazine essays of the year.” Like the recent Rolling Stone article, “The 101 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” Brooks’s piece is another list; it has become a journalistic genre, the creation of year-end lists. And, as we said in our post on the greatest guitarists, lists are made for argument. But Brooks doesn’t even let us get to his list before starting his argument, to wit: “Anybody interested in being a better person will click the links to these essays in the online version of this column, and read attentively.” We’re all for reading, writing, and critical thinking, and hopeful that the Toads blog illuminates our curiosity, if nothing else, but wish becoming a better person were that easy.
If, as Norman O. Brown argued, “the fall is into language” (Love’s Body, 257), it’s hard to see how more of it is going to help matters. But we were reminded of something else we read this week, Elif Batuman’s “The Sanctuary: The world’s oldest temple and the dawn of civilization” (New Yorker, Dec. 19, 2011). Elif asks a penetrating question, which links us to a previous post on Brooks, coincidentally: have humans improved over time? Elif puts it this way: “Was the human condition ever fundamentally different from the way it is now?” (82 – but it’s behind the New Yorker paywall). Entire belief systems, Elif argues, depend on how we answer questions having to do with human progress. Is it possible that not only are we unable to improve, but we can only get worse? We see some evidence for this, but if we had to choose, we hold with those who think we’re the same as we’ve ever been.
But maybe Brooks is right, and humans simply have not read enough. Who knows, but we doubt it. When it comes to improvement, to becoming a better person, we’re also reminded of the compliment scene in the film “As Good As It Gets” (1997). “You make me want to be a better man,” the human-overdosed Jack Nicholson character, Melvin, tells Carol (Helen Hunt). No more accurate definition of love have we ever read.
Perhaps we reach a point where we are as good as we want to be, and we stop reading and writing, and that’s as good as it gets. But Melvin doesn’t say that Carol makes him a better person, only that she makes him want to be a better person, and we see him struggle. And Brooks doesn’t say that reading does makes us better persons; and maybe what he meant is merely that those interested in self-improvement might find reading helpful.
Something else: Brooks’s article is a bit confusing, also, for what, exactly, are the Sydney awards? They seem to be something of his own making, but we also find the Sydney Hillman awards. There are apparently two Sydneys, then, both with the purpose of providing interested persons links to reading that is as good as it gets.
Follow-up: Brooks wrote his article in two parts. Here’s part two: “The Sydney Awards, Part II” (New York Times, Dec. 22, 2011).