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Ideas Matter, and So Do the Books We Read

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(pcess609/Getty Images) The world might be in a better place if more people read Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited.

In May 1791, Edmund Burke wrote about a cause of the French Revolution: The French people were reading the wrong books. In “A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” Burke wrote, “Nothing ought to be more weighed than the nature of books recommended by public authority. So recommended, they soon form the character of the age.”

Burke believed the character of the age of the French Revolution was formed by Rousseau:

The Assembly recommends to its youth a study of the bold experimenters in morality. Every body knows that there is a great dispute amongst their leaders, which of them is the best resemblance to Rousseau. In truth, they all resemble him. His blood they transfuse into their minds and into their manners. . . . I am certain that the writings of Rousseau lead directly to this kind of shameful evil.

Of course, Burke is being a bit dramatic here, as he was wont to do from time to time. Rousseau alone did not cause the French Revolution. No single book could, and drawing a straight line from one author to a major social change will never provide a complete picture.

But Burke was making a point that conservatives continue to emphasize: Ideas matter. Among intellectuals, Richard Weaver’s book, Ideas Have Consequences, was very influential on the founders of the conservative movement. Among the general public today, we’re seeing parents speaking in school-board meetings about which ideas are promoted in the curriculum.

Last summer, as protests and riots surrounding racial issues broke out around the country, booksellers were sold out of books from the “anti-racist” movement. Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, went from selling about 18,000 copies from March to April to selling over 400,000 copies from May to June. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, Stamped from the Beginning, sold 3,000 copies from March to April and then almost 140,000 from May to June.

At the time of this writing, DiAngelo’s White Fragility

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