We too easily assume that we are our real selves, and that our choices are really the ones we want to make when, in fact, our acts of free choice are (though morally imputable, no doubt) largely dictated by psychological compulsions, flowing from our inordinate ideas of our own importance. Our choices are too often dictated by our false selves.
I'm reading this book by Merton alongside a book that might best be described as propaganda--a digest of several people's arguments against a predictable set of contrarian beliefs, presented with a high level of authoritarian conceit and adversarial derision. I read this other book and feel like I'm watching Fox News.
Both books are provocative, but only one strikes me as particularly conducive to constructive conversation and fruitful meditation. That's the Merton book; I'm not going to name the other one.
I've drawn a tentative conclusion about what makes a book good. It's tentative, so I could be convinced otherwise, and I should also say that I have in mind principally nonfiction books, although I suspect a similar principle applies to fiction as well. Here goes: The best books are hard to read.
By "hard" I don't mean unintelligible; I think part of the craft of writing is clear and compelling prose, rich and evocative poetry. More and more, however, I think that a book should be hard enough to read that we can't be by ourselves with it. The best books leave us unsettled, uncomfortable, moved in such a way that we feel a need to share it, to borrow wisdom from people we love and trust in order to better wrestle with it, to lay it open in front of other people and say, "What must I do with this?" The best books compel us toward something we may not even be able to yet identify, while humbling us enough to turn to others for support. The best books don't send us to our friends to wag our fingers at them but to ask them to read with us, guide us, pray for us.
If that's true, then perhaps the best reader ever was King Josiah, who when read the books of Moses by his royal secretary, "ripped his robes in dismay" and ordered his court to "pray to GOD for me and what's left of Israel and Judah. Find out what we must do in response to what is written in this book" (2 Chronicles 34:19-20). I guess even audio books can be good.