Books To Read before We Die

Recently, I gave a bibliophilic friend the new book by James Mustich, 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List. It is a delight to peruse the tome, as the author and his associates have done a brilliant job of layout, summary, enticement—each day I pick it up, I make mental notes of works to reread or discover afresh.

Mustich encourages his readers to start their own list and add books that have been significant in their lives. I noticed that of his thousand, there’s not one by Noam Chomsky. This reminded me that a book by Chomsky that I read, way back in 1985, deepened how I was then learning to see the world.

The timing was perfect. With friends in Louisville, I had the good fortune to be a part of three projects that had as their focus U.S. foreign policy and Central America—the Sanctuary Movement for Salvadoran refugees; Witness for Peace in the war zones of Nicaragua under attack by the U.S.-backed contras; and the Pledge of Resistance which aimed to make Congress accountable for funding the terrorists against the Sandinista government and the Nicaraguan people.

During that period I read Chomsky’s Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America & The Struggle for Peace. I had already been developing a sharper, critical perspective on the role of the U.S. government, having been informed by the radical Catholic perspectives of Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and Thomas Merton. Chomsky, free from all religiosity, set as his task to de-mystify the U.S. policies and to expose the intellectuals who were the agents and beneficiaries of that mystification. (It was shortly after this period that I read The Fateful Triangle, Chomsky’s book on the U.S., Israel, and the Palestinians, which influenced me to such a degree that I later expanded a small point Chomsky made therein about Elie Wiesel into my first book.)

I offer three passages from Turning the Tide, among many I could cite, that were achingly illuminating in those days of American-backed atrocities and civic resistance…


“[Why do we resort to propaganda?] There are two basic reasons. The first is that reality is unpleasant to face, and it is therefore more convenient, both for planners and for the educated classes who are responsible for ideological control, to construct a world of fable and fantasy while they proceed with their necessary chores. The second is that elite groups are afraid of the population. They are afraid that people are not gangsters. They know that the people they address would not steal food from a starving child if they knew that no one was looking and they could get away with it, and that they would not torture and murder in pursuit of personal gain merely on the grounds that they are too powerful to suffer retaliation for their crimes. If the people they address were to learn the truth abut the actions they support or passively tolerate, they would not permit them to proceed. Therefore, we must live in a world of lies and fantasies, under the Orwellian principle that Ignorance is Strength.”

“The real victims of ‘America’s agony’ are millions of suffering and tormented people throughout much of the Third World. Our highly refined ideological institutions protect us from seeing their plight and our role in maintaining it, except sporadically. If we had the honesty and moral courage, we would not let a day pass without hearing the cries of the victims. We would turn on the radio in the morning and listen to the voices of the people who escaped the massacres in Quiché province and the Guazapa mountains, and the daily press would carry front-page pictures of children dying of malnutrition and disease in the countries where order reigns and crops and beef are exported to the American market, with an explanation of why this is so. We would listen to the extensive and detailed record of terror and torture in our dependencies compiled by Amnesty International, Americas Watch, Survival International, and other human rights organizations. But we successfully insulate ourselves from this grim reality. By so doing, we sink to a level of moral depravity that has few counterparts in the modern world….”

“There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organization, action that raises the cost of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change — and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future.”


It was several years working with Father Jim Flynn, Pat Geier and friends from St. William and the Church of Epiphany that afforded me some glimmers of a brighter future from having been face-to-face with people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua who were all too familiar with American moral depravity.

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