E.D. Hirsch Jr. is an academic literary critic and a professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia. Hirsch is best known for his writings about cultural literacy and his controversial 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. His most recent book is The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, which argues for reforming the way children are taught.
What books should Americans read to become better Americans?
The best books to read are Abraham Lincoln’s collected speeches and any good biography such as David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. My reasoning is that Lincoln was deeply connected with the founders and deeply understood the principles of the founding, but had incorporated them into a modern point of view and synthesized them more profoundly than anyone else before or since. I write admiringly about Lincoln in my book The Making of Americans.
What book has influenced you the most?
This is a hard question for an 82-year-old who continues to read books and to be influenced by them—that’s more than 75 years of being influenced by books. I find this an impossible question to answer. What influenced my earlier self is often something I reject now! I’m going to flunk this question. The book that influenced me most last year was Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, edited by Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar. Along with liberty, the public-private distinction is a foundational principle of the American experiment that has from the start been concerned with finding the right balance between the demands of these domains and giving due weight and respect to each.
How does reading fiction contribute to education?
Good fiction has the same aim as good nonfiction: to tell the truth about some aspect of the world, though it also has the function of entertaining, which it used to do for centuries before the era of movies, television and the Internet. But those media should also be understood as vehicles for stories. I simply repeat what the ancient Roman poet Horace said about literature: It should please even while it instructs and instruct even as it entertains. These days I tend to like my instruction straight and my entertainment straight. That’s age talking. I used to like stories and novels, and my wife and I read War and Peace out loud the first year of our marriage—a fond memory.
Any guilty pleasures on your bookshelf?
Guilty pleasures? I’m a big fan of Lee Child. And wish he could turn them out even faster. That man can write—not true of most thriller writers—and can make a plot, evoke place and make you turn the page. I’m completely up to date on his thrillers.