Lying With Books

Walker Percy

Walker Percy

This is not a post about lying on the beach with a “beach read.” It may, however apply to what you read on the beach.

I’m at a conference this week and one of our speakers quoted the American novelist Walker Percy who once said,

“Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition, so that one never recognizes oneself, the deepest part of oneself, in a bad book.” (From Signposts in a Strange Land.)

Percy goes on to observe that books may titillate and engage our attention in a voyeuristic way and yet leave us with a sour taste, because their portraits of the human condition and the moral universe they create fails to ring true. Novels that are true are similar to walls that are plumb or good carpentry where all fits.

Our speaker went on to extend this axiom to other pursuits such as economics (“bad economics always lie; they lie most about the human condition.”) He proposed that our condition is one of being “glorious ruins”, both noble with high aspirations, and yet fallible and finite and that when we try to tell any story that denies this reality, we tell a story of hubris that lies about the human condition.

I think this is what has always troubled me about the characters of Ayn Rand’s fiction. All are strong and assertive and capable and their only downfall is a system that fails to realize their egoistic drive to succeed. There is no self-awareness of the tremendous capacity for not only good but also evil that runs through each of us.

One of the conclusions drawn in this presentation was the importance not only in writing but in our politics, our economics, our home life, to become tellers of good stories if it is a good society we would shape.

He suggested that the good stories are not ones of living happily ever after but rather ones of proximate good, the good that is possible for people who are “glorious ruins.” We enjoy good, but hardly perfect marriages. We achieve proximately and not ideally good “all or nothing” political solutions.

I think Percy and our speaker are on to something. The stories I’ve loved the most are honest and create characters I can believe if not always like. They are stories that make me reflect both on the darker angels of my nature, and aspire to something better without ever denying what I am.

I would be curious what others think about this. Have you come across books that you felt lied about the human condition? And do you think that the telling of good stories, the creating of good narratives, in the sense of proximate good, is important in shaping the good society?

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