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I often reserve my Sunday afternoons for trips to the local university library. These visits are bittersweet, for although I live in an area of the country which is considered to be “very conservative” and is very Republican (the Democratic Party often does not field a complete list of candidates in an election), I rarely have any trouble finding available in the stacks works by and about the major conservative writers whom I esteem. Am I truly the only reader of Kirk, Weaver, and Voegelin in a town with a university of 30,000 students?

Today was a typical jaunt which led me to the stacks on a quest to find the following works: The Counter-Revolution by Thomas Molnar, Paul Elmer More and American Criticism by Robert Shafer, Democracy and Populism by John Lukacs, and Democracy without Nations? by Pierre Manent. Lucky for me, I had absolutely no problem in acquiring these works as they were neatly situated on the shelves. “Neatly” is key here, for this library is not one of the better organized ones that I have frequented. If a book is easily found, it has probably not been borrowed for a long time. Sure enough, after finding each work, I opened the front covers and found the following dates for the most recent readings: the More book was last borrowed in January, 1968; Molnar had one perusal in January, 1974; I am the first to borrow the Manent book (published 2007). But the Lukacs book was borrowed in April, 2006 (I am pretty sure that I was the previous borrower).

So what does this say about conservatives and conservatism? How is the conservative imagination to be enlivened if, as I believe, self-described conservatives limit themselves to…to what? Fox News? Sean Hannity? Mornings on the Mall with Glenn Beck? Lunch with Limbaugh? Sure, this is only one man’s experience in the great American Outback, but didn’t Professor Carey hit the proverbial nail on the head when, writing in 2005 about the future of American conservatism, he recognized that the leadership of the Republican Party showed little interest in the roots and traditions of conservatism and that “the Republican Party has, so to speak, changed its spots virtually without attracting much critical attention”? And that George W. Bush’s “aggressive foreign policy, perhaps best described as Wilsonianism on steroids, has its roots in the traditions of the Democratic Party and clearly runs counter to well-established conservative principles” [Modern Age, Vol. 47, pp. 292-293]? How do we keep alive the great tradition when our leadership has vacated our heritage?

Many years ago, in graduate school, I overheard someone assert that one difference between the two major political parties was that Republicans did not read books, and Democrats read the wrong books. Browsing the shelves of university and public libraries has not disabused me of that assertion. What is a force for optimism, however, is the fact that our literary heritage is still available (Dr. Kirk once wrote, “in and age of progressive inflation, one commodity alone remains stable, or increases little in price: classical works”), and is being kept alive through blogs like this, through independent educational centers (thank you, Barbara and Winston), and at select schools and universities. We are few, a happy few, but we have our work cut out for us.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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9 replies to this post
  1. Glenn, what a great post–especially for a Sunday evening. Thank you. I had a similar experience a few years ago. One of my favorite books is Owen Barfield's POETIC DICTION. It has shaped me in many ways. At a top ten university (which shall remain unnamed), I went to the shelves and found only one edition–the first (1928) edition. As I picked it up, I realized, the pages were still uncut! It had been sitting there for 80 years, unopened, unused, forgotten. Amazing.

  2. Mr. Davis, you are not alone in reading the classics and the circulation of library books is not a good indicator of the popularity of a book. Today, even conservatives download books.

  3. AHR, point taken. I am certainly not the right one to judge the popularity of downloaded books and the habits of today's technologically savvy reader. On the continuum from Wendell Berry to Steve Jobs, I am much closer to the good agrarian poet. I relish the opportunity to stand athwart history clicking "Log Off."

    I did not mean to imply that I was the only one reading conservative classics, although in discussions in academia in my part of the world it often seems that I am. As I stated, there are select schools and centers where our great tradition is celebrated. Many homeschoolers in addition are keeping the faith.

    Yet…as Dr. Birzer writes, there is something amazing that so many of the great works that we traditionalists digest are simply unknown and uninteresting to many others. There is little doubt, in my view, that the learned wisdom of men like Dr. Kirk, Irving Babbitt, P.E. More, Richard Weaver, Thomas Molnar, has been increasingly marginalized over the past thirty years. Do these movement conservatives have readers? Yes. Are those readers numerous and mainstream? No. If visiting the stacks is inadequate evidence, check the citations in recent books on the political imagination, even those by conservatives. Or talk to some graduate students or professors in the field. I do, and I am often left speechless by the limitations of their reading. Twenty years ago, while writing on Solzhenitsyn and Voegelin, I was warned by a senior colleage that few would know about whom I was writing, and if they did, they would probably not approve. The actual issue may not be a political dislike as much as the overriding pressures of today's "higher academic capitalism" to specialize in "hot" topics. Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.

  4. "The actual issue may not be a political dislike as much as the overriding pressures of today's 'higher academic capitalism' to specialize in 'hot' topics."

    Yes. I overheard someone comment on a particular book being read for "twenty years" in graduate school–as though that were forever. Makes me feel like we're talking about Broadway plays rather than books.

    Most of my current books have been published in the last 10-15 years. People will drop names and the associated ideas of previous scholars and authors but no one would actually read them.

    Which is not to say that I am reading bad books or that I'm completely against this contemporary approach. It is graduate school, and ideally anyone with a B.A. should be grounded in the Western canon. Though of course most aren't–how could they when canons don't exist?

    I hope you enjoy 'Democracy and Populism.' It's one of the best books I've read in the past year, something I regularly recommend to Fox News fans.

    And I should say that I follow the blog of a British short-story writer, (l/L)iberal, and student of modern and contemporary American fiction… and this particular gentleman has been obsessively reading Voegelin of late, has written on Lukacs, and reads Flannery O'Connor. All is not lost.

  5. Brad,

    As an old professor of mine (actually, he was then quite young, and if he is still alive would be only a couple of years older than I) used to say, much to the delight of a large lecture class, "AHA!" When four hundred students said it back to him, he became so discumbobulated that he had to leave the auditorium.

    In this case my "AHA!" is to the point that you might spend one minute worrying about an uncut classic in the catacombs. We don't even know for sure who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews (I do, though–it was Paul) but now we can get it in any translation, almost instantaneously and for…FREE! And read it on Kindle and never be concerned about who might not have gone to the library to check it out. Public libraries, in fact, were early forms of Kindles–"Let's put old books in the hands of the unwashed," says BF (Franklin, for those of you who didn't recognize the first neocon's initials), "and maybe they won't resent my superiority so much."

    I'm for the iPod, the iPd, the iPhone, the iBook, the iMac, AND for Carolingian Miniscule! Thoreau, dragged out to see a huffing and puffing train, said, "An improved means to an unimproved end," and was right. If we don't confuse means and ends, what's wrong with, "AHA!" the computer?

  6. Oh, those classics are getting read alright. Just not by who you think. The up & coming homeschool graduates are reading all kinds of fabulous classic books – both political and otherwise. We buy them at used bookstores when we can find them, check them out at the library, purchase them used online, buy them new when we just have to, and if all else fails, we buy digital (because we would much rather have a book in the hand than a digital copy that can just disappear….). It takes time to turn a large ship that is heading into a whirlpool, but we homeschooling parents are trying really hard!

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