"The three hardest tasks in the world are neither physical feats nor intellectual achievements, but moral acts: to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, 'I was wrong.' " -- Sydney Harris
The late Nelson Algren wrote that loving Chicago was like loving a woman with a broken nose. "You may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." Sydney Harris, America's finest columnist, on his first visit, liked Chicago's broken nose and big shoulders, and has lived there ever since.
But unlike Algren, Mike Royko, and Studs Terkel, Harris doesn't write about Chicago and luminaries and politicians, but about the interaction of ideas, people and behavior. He's been doing it in his column, "Strictly Personal," in more than 200 newspapers, five days a week since 1944, which may make him the longest-lived columnist in America. And says something for a column that is essentially advice on thinking and living from the great minds filtered through Harris' nimble brain.
Harris read fluently at age 5. Later, as a Boy Scout, he went to sleep reading Tom Swift and "awoke the next morning," he says, "reading Nietzsche." For much of his life he's read five books a day and still averages 10 a week: philosophy, theology, science, biography -- anything with an idea in it. He left high school without a diploma for journalism and at 20 began a literary magazine, The Beacon, with friend Saul Bellow as his assistant editor. Later he was asked by Robert M. Hutchins to teach The Great Books and other humanities courses at the University of Chicago, which he did with distinction but still without a diploma (he has picked up three honorary doctorates since).
Now at 65 still plugging away at lazy brains, Harris has gathered the best of his columns and aphorisms since 1965 in this book, his 11th. He still uses the same eight short paragraphs -- hence the title -- to make, defend or attack an idea. And he still has the old fiery delight in knowledge and the wit and style to convey it to the waitresses, mechanics, salesmen and intellectuals across the country who read him. (In Chicago in the late 1940s I used to find clipped Harris columns in gas station restrooms, streetcars and college libraries.)
Harris tells us things we badly need to learn. (1) Two are needed for oneness; (2) The loser gains more than the winner because the loser learns most from the experience; (3) The adult is not satisfied with riches, fame or honor, because only the satisfaction of our earliest emotional needs, those of a child, gratify us over a long period; (4) Time telescopes as we get older because the more we have, the less each increment counts; and (5) Technology is a trap: It begins as a comfort and ends as a crutch. Through it all he urges tolerance. He recalls how once he debated Marshall McLuhan and how McLuhan wandered all over the map, totally ignoring the subject. Rankled, Harris told his family that McLuhan was a palpable fraud, only to learn later that the Canadian had been suffering from a brain tumor that had derailed his concentration.
The reader will not finish this book in one reading. Harris' essays are too idea-laden and concise to permit a breezy scan. The book should be read slowly and savored. Nor are all his ideas certified wisdom. I disagree with several of his points: for instance, with the notion that a main ingredient in war is the father's envy of the son or the depiction of violence in the media is cathartic, not stimulative, and doesn't lead to violent behavior. Also, he uses "gay" for homosexuals but objects to calling Negroes "black" (not to mention equating homosexuality to a condition genetically similar to his own left-handedness).
"Towards what can arms not be held out?" asks the French poet, and for most of his life Harris has been holding his arms out to influences ranging from Socrates to Lee Wiley, the jazz singer, plagiarizing, synthesizing and connecting, a la E.M. Forster. To read him is to breathe again the air of Martin Buber and his meeting ground, of G.K. Chesterton the laughing Christian, and especially of Alain (Emile Chartier), the French philosopher whose propos, little "remarks" of 500-600 pithy words, made him a national treasure. Take the sentence, "We must stand firm between two kinds of madness: the belief that we can do anything, and the belief that we can do nothing." Is it Alain or Harris?
That's how good Sydney Harris is. We are lucky to have a writer who wrings some of the ephemeral out of our journalism.