Feb 26, 2020
Traditional book reviews tend to focus on a single book, such as Just Giving by Rob Reich. We ought, however, to be reviewing a broader question: what is the role of books in a liberal democratic society? And what role should they play?
Books were first invented during the early Bronze Age. Plato states people fiercely opposed the first books; in his dialogue Phaedrus, he recalls the Egyptian priests’ objection to early writing:
[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Contrast the Egyptian scribes’ reception with the ceaseless praise given to the authors of our age. Rather than asking about the purposes of writing and the power of authors, we tend instead to celebrate writers, large and small, for their brilliance. But in our age, these are questions we should pose with greater urgency. Scholarly literature like Just Giving is an unaccountable, nontransparent, and perpetual exercise of power. It deserves more criticism than it has received.