Intellectuals and philosophers may think they make the weather, but they are more often driven by it. People who read and write books, like you and me, have a persistent tendency to overestimate the power of ideas. Some of us may occasionally change our beliefs and our lives as a result of a chain of conscious reasoning, but not very often or very honestly. Our own age has forcibly reminded us that intellectual elites often struggle to bring their societies with them. Their default role is to tag along, explaining with perfect hindsight why things inevitably turned out as they did.
— Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt
It’s been said many times that humanity has suffered a series of shocks to its self-image thanks to Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, who demoted us from our position at the center of the universe, the pinnacle of the animal kingdom, and the command center of our own consciousness, respectively. Those of us who still read books for pleasure are constantly reminded that we’re like Amish who insist on riding our horses and buggies down the information superhighway as all the kids zip by us in their text messages at the speed of 5G, laughing at our quaint old habits. One could take this particular excerpt as another diminishment of the bibliophile self-image, but I prefer to think of the ideas and concepts I encounter in my reading as akin to melodies, not blueprints. Music doesn’t make me a “better” person; reading doesn’t make me smarter. Neither one is leading to anything in a progressive, cumulative sense; they’re just here to make the present moment a little bit brighter or tastier. Humming a sweet snippet of Tchaikovsky at Christmastime; reading an elegant expression of a feeling or an idea — these need no external justification.