Until a week ago, I had never considered reading V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 Nobel laureate for literature. City Journal editor Brian Anderson gave a brief appreciation of Naipaul’s writing in explaining why The Masque of Africa was on his summer reading list. The discussion pointed to Naipaul’s 1990 Wriston lecture, Our Universal Civilization, a stunning summary of the allure of tradition, the clash of civilizations, and the power of the pursuit of happiness told in stories from life and literature. It is not surprising that this lecture, beautifully written and yet easy to read, was the text Tunku Varadajaran cited in his obituary for the Wall Street Journal. A sample may tempt you, as it has me, to read more:

I am not going to attempt to define this civilization. I will only speak of it in a personal way. It is the civilization, first of all, that gave me the idea of the writing vocation. It is the civilization in which I have been able to practice my vocation as a writer. To be a writer, you need to start with a certain kind of sensibility. The sensibility itself is created, or given direction, by an intellectual atmosphere.

The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn’t always universal; it wasn’t always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain.

This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.