On a flight up from the South recently, a magazine called GIFTFOLIO leaped from the pocket of the seat in front of me. It offered a catalog of innovative luggage, space-age alarm clocks and a variety of items for business executives addicted to golf. But the bonanza was a full page ad for the "World's 100 Greatest Books."
Send away, it said, and you could "Acquire and Apply the Wealth of Knowledge in the World's Greatest Books - Without a Lifetime of Study."
Such enterprises are built upon an assumption that rarely disappoints. It is that this broad land is inhabited by boobs whose gullibility has never lost a skirmish to common sense.
An English friend named Winston once insisted to me that there are two salient American traits of exception: the irrepressible zeal for self-improvement and the concomitant, and often contradictory conviction, that things which are hard to do can be made easy by virtue of a new method or technique, a gimmick of some sort.
This, he said, is the American apostasy against the proven wisdom that there is no free lunch.
What the airline magazine ad offered was not actual books, but tapes. Nowadays people accept books on tape as legitimate, which is fine. But these were not tapes of great books, but tapes about them, with an occasional passage from the book recited by a narrator.
The ad continued, "Based on a powerful new learning system that allows you to quickly learn and incorporate a large body of knowledge into your daily life and conversation, this comprehensive package consists of two volumes of 50 cassette tapes, with one book on each 45-minute side."
Each "book" was said to come with a corresponding "Knowledge Map," a single page that tells you something about the author and his or her times, and facilitates the entire experience.
Reading the boring, old-fashioned way, sentence by sentence, page by page, the ad went on, it would take 25 years to get through all these books, according to InteliQuest, which markets the tapes. The new system - that is, the tapes and Knowledge Maps - enables you to "absorb much of their knowledge, wisdom and insight in just a few weeks of enjoyable listening."
And then, the payoff, the closer: "After listening to each of the one hundred 45 minute tapes, you will have a depth of knowledge achieved by only a few people who have ever lived."
Irresistible? Who could reject life among the princes of wisdom?
Since each book-tape can be consumed in less than an hour, one could spend the morning with Descartes' "Meditations," and be a knock-out at the afternoon staff meeting. Forty-five minutes with Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" would lend heft to your presentations. Linger a while over Goethe's "Faust," absorb a little of life's tragic sense; tone up the inner man.
I had a dark thought: The ad promised a 30-day "risk free" trial period. I could stay home one day and absorb all the world's knowledge in one long siege, then send the tapes back and declare them unsatisfactory. On further thought, that probably would have collided with "The Nicomachean Ethics" of Aristotle, so I dismissed it.
The peculiarly American addiction for self-improvement fascinates me, always has. This clearly was perfect fodder for a hyper-tense autodidact. Of course, there would be some dangers attached. What could be more socially crippling than "a depth of knowledge achieved by only a few people who have ever lived?" Who would go bowling with such a person?
And who, other than a true believer in the free lunch, might expect to acquire it through a cassette player while commuting back and forth to work?
The power of books
It's easy to be condescending about this whole thing. It is easy, but not necessarily right. Basically, the impulse to self-improvement has got to be positive; it suggests at least a belief in the power of books to carry us to a better place.
It is in the matter of getting what is in the books out of them and into our heads where the problem presents itself. That is the locus of vulnerability. That is the point where the revolutionary new technique, the thingamajig that makes it all so easy, is most alluring. The poison promise is the one that offers to substitute the passive process of listening, or viewing, for the active mental exertion of reading, and the surrender of the time it takes to learn.
Still, we decided to give it a test. The first tape selected randomly from the newly arrived box was Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West." Just the thing: Teutonic, deep, full of weighty dignity.
Actually it was a pretty breezy experience, kind of like listening in on a graduate assistant giving a history lecture to a large freshman class. I was told by a male narrator about Spengler's theories of the cyclical growth of cultures, how hard he worked on his book, which the Nazis exploited, and the fact he never married.
On the same evening I did Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." This had the advantage of humor, though, the narrator assured us, most of the truly crude expressions by the frisky Middle English poet were edited out. I was also informed that people in 14th Century England thought differently about women than they do today. How about that!
I had a go at Rene Descartes' "Meditations," but almost fell asleep. At the end of the evening I was not at all convinced I knew measurably more about these three historic personages than I knew before I started, which was almost nothing. I was not instantly the expert on all things, as I had been promised. It was clear that, on me at least, the 'powerful new learning system' was entirely powerless.
I did end up convinced that anyone who shells out $265 for cassettes about 100 dubious World's Greatest Books, and then listens to them all, is less likely to wind up knowing more about everything than anybody else than he is just to get a headache.
If you spend any time perusing the literature carried on airplanes these days, you will see there is a buoyant market for this kind of stuff.
Want to learn another language? No sweat. Thirty days will do it using the Pimsleur System with Syber Vision.
Want to learn at lightening speed? Plug your mind into the Amazing Learning Machine. Boost your mental powers. Call ZYGON.
Now You Can Have a Photographic Memory. Instant Results . . . Buy both now and you will receive a FREE bonus cassette on "How to Remember Everything in Your Past."
The targets for all this are those eager careerists flying here and there, preparing for this sales meeting, that managerial seminar. Those of us not in trade are blessedly excluded. They buy the cassettes, the videos, even actual books full of unfulfillable promises: "Discipline Without Punishment: The Proven Strategy That Turns Problem Employees Into Superior Performers"; "Secrets of Power Presentations"; "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," and so on.
One must wonder, are the disciples of the Wall Street Journal, Baron's and Forbes, all those communicants in the Church of the Free Market, so gullible as this suggests? If so, and if the business of America truly is business, aren't we in trouble? And
whatever happened to caveat emptor?
But perhaps I should not be so scornful of this dimension of our national ethos. Americans are ambitious. We ought to be. We have been set on our individual courses toward personal perfection throughout our history by some powerful figures, from Benjamin Franklin to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Horatio Alger.
My English friend, Winston, could understand this intellectually, if not exactly feel it deep in his cockles. He was perceptive. He identified the two defining traits of the American psyche simply out of a story I told him about a cartoon I once saw in the New Yorker.
It showed a pitchman on television, selling a new kind of can opener. As an added inducement to buy he said he was prepared to throw in, at no extra cost, a simulated leather-bound volume containing knowledge of all the world's secrets, answers to the really big questions: What is truth? Beauty? You name it.
The preposterousness of it all made me laugh heartily, but I never for a second thought it had a national gloss to it. But Winston, he just smiled in his wan English fashion and said, "It's not bad. Very American."
* Richard O'Mara is a features writer for The Sun. For 12 years he was the foreign editor and before that, foreign correspondent in Latin America and Europe. He also has written for the Virginia Quarterly Review, Saturday Review and the Antioch Review.