REVIEW: Dead White Guys by Matt Burriesci
Dead White Guys is a timely defense of the great books, arriving in the middle of a national debate about the fate of these books in high schools and universities around the country. Burriesci shows how the great books can enrich our lives as individuals, as citizens, and in our careers. Extending the argument first made by Anna Quinndlen’s on the act of reading itself, How Reading Changed My Life,” (“It is like the rubbing of two sticks together to make a fire, the act of reading, an improbable pedestrian task that leads to heat and light,) Burriesci reminds us all of the enormous impact reading has on our lives.
After his daughter was born prematurely in 2010, Burriesci set out to write a book about 26 Great Books, from Plato to Karl Marx, and how their lessons have applied to his life. As someone who has spent a long and successful career advocating for great literature, Burriesci defends the great books in this series of tender and candid letters, rich in personal experience and full of humor.
The requirements for my bachelor of science degree didn’t allow me any extra time to indulge myself in taking classes outside of what I had to. A dear friend whose bachelor of arts degree allowed, no change that to made, her study some of these works shakes her head in dismay at me. She’s spoken so many times about how reading and discussing these books has changed her life and made her a better critical thinker that when I saw this listed at netgalley I thought – why not? Let’s just see what he has to say about them.
I love the idea that the book is written as a letter to his daughter, Violet, encouraging her to read, think, debate and talk about the things, ideas, lessons and questions these works address. For those ready to dismiss the book out of hand, I say to read the introduction because a lot of what you’re probably ready to protest about is mentioned. Most of the selections are taken from The Great Books of the Western World so obviously there is a lack of balance and inclusion. These are works of past European millenniums when minorities and women weren’t often recorded. But wait, there’s more.
Another fair warning is that much of the book is about how he interprets things and ideas and these are colored by his personal viewpoints – some of which didn’t tally with mine and probably won’t with yours. He is a white, male American, Christian with what I perceived to be a slightly liberal political leaning and there are times when his privilege shows. I give him credit for openly admitting to some character flaws and past hurtful thoughts and behavior (he was a homophobic, drug user in his youth). He says he’s changed and learned – and that some of the lessons came from reading these books as well as life experience. Has he? Who knows but he is attempting to keep Violet from traveling down the same path.
Having said all that and given many reasons people might not want to read the book, here are some powerful reasons to read it.
“There exists, however, another reason for the criticism and contempt. The Great Books of the Western World are not interested in promoting our illusions, and they do not care about authority. They are neither gentle nor polite. They teach you how to see through illusions, and they demand that you question both yourself and your masters. Some people are afraid of that, and with good reason. And I should warn you, Violet: these books will challenge your illusions, too. At times you will be uncomfortable with what you find here. But I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s remark: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
The various chapters ask questions of life or offer lessons then use basic themes of the works as examples of answers to the questions or as guides in low to live your life to avoid or embrace these actions.
These writers can teach you how to think, not what to think.
Some of the questions asked are: Plato – what do I know, when is it right to do the wrong thing, is there any justice in the world, Plutarch – who’s in charge, Montaigne – what don’t I know, Rousseau – what’s best for everyone? Some answers: Julius Caesar – have some humility, St Paul – you will be wrong at times, Alexander the Great – be bold but also magnanimous, St Augustine – you are guilty of injustice if you do nothing to stop it. Some lessons: Smith – is greed good, Marx – does capitalism work?
These ideas and truths ought to be applicable to all – and maybe some day will be. His intention is for the “letter” to be read by Violet on her 18th birthday in 2028 so perhaps we’ll be further along to that point by then. I don’t think the baby should be tossed with the bathwater and the books offer some important life lessons even if they are from dead, white guys. I finished the book wishing the world will live up to the best of humanity. We have a ways to go but hopefully with even more writing, discussion and debate this will change. B-