Bruce Springsteen and Sen. Ben Sasse are probably as ideologically-opposite as you’ll find in the realm of rational human beings in 2019. But an op-ed by Sasse late last year and a bit on a new Springsteen album struck a common theme: How can we shape the legacy we leave our children?
“Springsteen on Broadway” was released on streaming media a couple of weeks ago, and in his introduction to the song “Long Time Comin’, ” Springsteen tells a story about his dad making amends with him, just before the Boss becomes a father himself.
In this soliloquy, Springsteen said that we get a choice in this life: We get to be the ghosts that haunt our children’s futures, or we get to be the ancestors, who help guide them on their path, turning us toward the right and good.
As a guy who recently lost his dad — and with a terminal illness that’ll someday take me from my kids — I felt like Bruce was talking right to me, and laying down a marker: Which is it gonna be, pal? Ghost? Or ancestor?
And that’s where Sasse provides a partial blueprint. Paraphrasing from his own book in a December op-ed in the New York Times, the Nebraska senator talked about how he and his wife have developed an evolving “family canon” of books. This shelf of maybe 60 books should represent the things you’d want your kids to know as they go out into the world.
A dear friend introduced me to the idea on a cold night over hot pizza in BG, and it’s consumed me ever since. Sasse starts with the idea that you establish a dozen categories of books, and then limit yourself to six in each category. The categories are negotiable, but critical.
What are the 12 categories of human thought you want your kids to take a deep dive?
I kind of settled on six from the start: Faith, understanding America, adventure, family, conflict and — at my friend’s suggestion — bad ideas.
In the weeks since, I have played with lists of books under each of these sublists. Is “The Scarlet Letter” as important as “Between the World And Me” to understanding American today? Do I leave “The American Way of War” in the conflict section, if it kicks out “The History of the Peloponnesian War?” If I’m allowed to keep every book of the Bible for faith … can I keep every book of the Harry Potter series for adventure?
The parlor game aspect of this has been a ton of fun, and I would really encourage anyone to do it, just to figure out which books are meaningful to you. But the exercise gets at something deeper, too.
We want to be Springsteen’s ancestors. We want to help guide our children through the wilds, and I think most of us want to do it by making them good thinkers, and passing on the values and knowledge we’ve found critical to getting through this life.
The categories and books we think are important represent the ideas we think are important — not the small-minded political ideas of the day, but ideas about family, honor, trust, courage, loyalty, commitment. Legacies of stuff can disappear, but a legacy of ideas?
It speaks to us. From our ancestors.