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By Patrick O'Hannigan

This came out of the blue as a "respectful rebuttal" to something I wrote a while back. I've never met Mr. O'Hannigan, but he writes so charmingly, I'm sure I'd feel privileged to print his grocery list, if he cared to submit it for publication. And he has thoughtful words about how, and why, we read the things we do.

To understand why the saying "You Are What You Read" still makes sense, it helps to know a little about my grandfather Clemente, whom I called Abuelito. Years before he died in 1990 at age 88, Abuelito started sleeping in church. This mortified my homebound grandmother, who usually learned about the naps from Abuelito himself, when he returned from church to her command post. She was seldom assuaged by the twinkle in Abuelito's eyes. Seated in an alcove off the kitchen near her telephone and embroidery, she would look up at a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe to rue the example that her husband all too frequently set for his visiting grandchildren and the other churchgoers.

Abuelito by that time was a retired optician with wire-frame glasses and a full head of hat-flattened gray hair. He lived in a self-built house behind a grocery store and drove a brown Chevy Vega through the equally brown streets of an arid border town, passing time with stories in the newspaper, pool games at the Senior Center, and mariachi music played badly on his harmonica. Such a man could not be troubled by the naps that scandalized his wife. While her prayers burned a hole in the sky for him, Abuelito remained confident that God understood his need for rest; any worrying we did should be directed toward other things.

When I was not there to hear them firsthand, Abuelito mailed nuggets of advice like that to me. He had Yaqui Indian blood, but his Yaqui Way of Knowledge had more to do with the Bible and the neighborhood barbershop than with Carlos Castaneda's once-popular hippie tome. "Always remember to choose your friends and your books carefully," he wrote in one letter. It is because that advice has proven its worth that I can proclaim as we said in poly-yester years that you are indeed what you read.

The mother of all objections to this assertion invokes the Nazis, whose alleged fondness for high-minded literature did not prevent them from killing millions of people. Fans of this objection forget that Nazi forays into Goethe were offset by forays into Mein Kampf. In the loutish phrase of Hermann Goering, "Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver." Both life and art make clear that to absorb a book is one thing, and to use it as a coffee table prop is another. It was not so long ago that allusions to the ancient Histories of Herodotus dignified a romp through adultery-as-destiny in The English Patient, for example.

Abuelito's advice about careful book selection stemmed from his respect for the power of books, an attitude not now as common as it once was, even among well-read people. Claire Wolfe is good example of this. The libertarian writer and self-described hellraiser all but declares herself immune to literary influence in an essay titled, "You Are What You Read?," and she writes so well that you can almost hear her eyebrows arch. Beginning with the observation that "every time somebody gets arrested for a particularly juicy crime these days, the cops trot out a list of books found on the miscreant's premises," Wolfe suggests that "these titles are designed to show what a Bad Person the reader is." Examples follow like suspects in a police lineup: "A favorite, of course, is The Turner Diaries. By golly, when the cops find a copy of that one in your household, they must dance little jigs."

Why would the cops dance jigs over The Turner Diaries? Wolfe strongly implies that, to those charged with enforcing laws, "mere possession of TTD proves beyond a doubt that you are a hate-spewing white racist. And being a hate-spewing white racist proves beyond doubt that you are capable of -- and probably guilty of -- every crime from spitting on the sidewalk to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart." Her summation is equally witty: "If anyone is going to subject me to Trial by Bookshelf, I am guilty of just about every darned thing you can imagine." By this time we know that a rush to judgment, the occupational hazard of all opinion making, has been well and truly lampooned.

But Abuelito would not have been convinced by arguments of that kind, because he was in the business of helping people see more clearly, and not just in a physical sense. Consider the experience of millions of bibliophiles. Literate folk have scanned each other's bookshelves for clues to the mind and character of other people ever since the printing press made home libraries possible. Sometimes this is done on the sly, when a date you don't know well leaves the room for a minute, and sometimes it is done as a kind of show and tell between guest and host. To call this exercise "trial by bookshelf" is to shackle natural curiosity with undeservedly ominous overtones.

Most of us readily admit that there is more to a person than his or her books. The mistake lies in leaping from that premise to the conclusion that what you read does not influence you in some profound way. People who refuse to judge book owners by their covers have sacrificed common sense on the altar of freedom. No wonder they can then make careless assumptions about circumstantial evidence.

Vincent Bugliosi describes this common trap with reference to American jurisprudence in his book Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder. "Circumstantial evidence has erroneously come to be associated in the lay mind and vernacular with an anemic case. But nothing could be further from the truth. It depends on what type of circumstantial evidence one is talking about." Contrary to popular belief, lack of eyewitnesses does not by itself make evidence circumstantial. The true circumstantial evidence case, notes Bugliosi, is one where "no physical evidence of any kind whatsoever" connects the defendant to the crime. In that kind of case, "you have to put one speck of evidence-an inappropriate remark, a suspicious bank transaction, a subtle effort to deflect the investigation, things like that--upon another speck until ultimately there is a strong mosaic of guilt."

With that in mind we turn back to Wolfe, whose bookshelves present not specks but scads of evidence about her literary tastes, and, by extension, her preferred modes of thought. Yet she would rather people not make connections between her books and her thoughts. "If it's really true that We Are What We Read," she huffs, "would somebody please tell me why, with all those cookbooks, I still can't boil pasta?" Abuelito would have smiled, and suggested politely that it might be a matter of not having had enough practice. The point is that given the formidable number of cookbooks on her shelves, other people-cops included-- can reasonably conclude that Wolfe either cooks or is interested in cooking. Whether they dance little jigs afterward is their business, unless we've wrapped ourselves in the free speech flag before asking questions like what writing is, if not a record of thought. We usually surround ourselves with what we like. Why should our books be exempt from the standard met by all of our other possessions? Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, questions like that one caused my mind to whirl. Years later, withholding judgment offers no answers, only the absurd impression that Joyce Carol Oates and John Irving could claim as much shelf space in Vatican libraries as, say, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Closer to home, who doubts that cadets at West Point are commended to Sun Tzu's The Art of War, rather than Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows?

People who refuse to admit that you are what you read often do so because history has taught them to fear an apparently inevitable progression from bad books to banned books. But censorship is not the only recourse of an angry citizenry. My grandfather would have proposed laughter as an alternative. He who asked whimsically for "tres frijolitos mas" when he wanted seconds at supper knew in his bones the truth of the dictum that "against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." Burning books gives them literary martyrdom, but laughing at them makes them toothless, unless they're comedies (and if you haven't yet read such golden oldies as John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces or William Goldman's The Princess Bride, you really should).

When laughter is not appropriate, silence speaks volumes. Writers, like puppies, hate to be ignored, and libraries exist in part so we can vote with our feet. If you want a portrait of Manhattan in the '80s but agree with the wag who said of the Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho that he'd seen "soup can labels written with more passion and feeling," then forget Ellis. Do yourself a favor and read Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities instead. Either book will mark your soul, but Ellis leaves a bruise, and Wolfe leaves a smile. Similarly, when you want a coming-of-age story but you're not in the mood for Holden Caulfield, borrow a copy of Richard Bradford's underrated Red Sky at Morning, once described as "a sort of Catcher in the Rye out west." In any event, get thee to a library. And if on the way you pass a brown old man with a newspaper in his hand, give him a smile.

(c) Patrick O'Hannigan 1998.

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13 August, 1998