OCTOBER 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 10
KEN CHAMPEON, a math teacher by trade, writes both fiction and non-fiction as time permits. He is a contributing writer.
An Apologia for Old Books
It is said that Oliver Wendell Holmes counseled his contemporaries not to trifle with old books. Thomas Jefferson, wistfully returning to the works of Plato, was consterned to find in them so many destructive dogmas and deceptions that his wig flew up in wonder that anyone should bother to read him. Meanwhile, in the academies of the present-day, a veritable bonfire of old books is refractorily stoked by the multiculti vanguard.
Please forgive the trespass of my antiquarianism here; I am well aware that books themselves, as a medium, old are new, are moribund, that print on paper is being ushered out by the image or print on a screen. I see the new and newsy armies of twenty-somethings looting the nascent mega-bookstores with armloads of volumes, but I doubt the books are more than bibelots. Recently in a radio interview with an author, the interviewer gushed, "You have made the ultimate coffee-table book!" A pregnant pause ensued, as the author scurried to imagine his raison d'etre as a decorative coaster. Shoppers of books are not readers of books, still less are "book enthusiasts" or book connoisseurs. The same burdened book-buyers have an increasingly wide range of media to distract them; they have lost the battle and they are as surely losing the war.
I have no hope that the world shall read more books; in fact, my hope lies in the world reading fewer books. To those fewer books, however, I hope that the world will give a higher ratio of time to each word or proposition than they presently do; and if I had my choice, I'd push the substrate of papyrus over acid-free.
This is not crotchety conservatism, and I am no reactionary kill-joy. Reputedly, those now living derive a great deal of pleasure and instruction old books are boring, irrelevant, or both. Seemingly the people of this era find more of their world relevant and interesting than those of any era heretofore.Ê Their most beloved medium, television, assaults their senses with showers of sanitized news. They are so up-to-date they are in constant peril of falling into tomorrow. And if the news is irrelevant, their remote control spares them its tangential poison.
It has been argued that this so-called "Culture of the New" is merely a symptom of capital's need to create new demand in order to increase itself. In particular, a publishing house is forced by fear for its survival to awaken in you an interest in a new, definitive biography of Sophia Loren, or better still, a new, definitive translation of Socrates' death. No matter that you had prior interest in either; the death of Socrates is superseded by its rephrasing.
That the provenance of the culture of the new might be capital certainly deprives it of any pretense to signifying a liberating force, or to yielding liberation. A reader of the Analects or Gibbon's Decline and Fall will be compelled to explain himself as a slave to tradition, while a reader of Pynchon or Welsh has no fear of denying slavery to fashion or Big Business. In either case, the reader is conditioned. But which is the more pernicious?
Jefferson's rejection of Plato can be read as the rejection by a revolutionary republican of an equally revolutionary ur-Fascist. Although Jefferson could not earnestly be said to have rejected all of antiquity, he certainly propped up some dubitable truths to self-evidence in defiance of much that had passed before. It is in exactly the same revolutionary spirit that present thinkers reject those of the past, and in particular the pantheon of pale and decrepit European men. The difference is that Jefferson actually read Plato before rejecting him, while latter-day academicians reject him as a matter of social or professional obligation. The most pernicious conditioning, then, is that which is not acknowledged as such.
The hidden dangers to society of wholesale and prejudiced rejection of ancient writings are manifold, and might be comparable to the effects of lobotomy to a human being. No doubt the subject is crippled except in extreme cases of psychopathology as the society is crippled except in extreme cases of pathological society. A cool-headed practitioner would recommend analysis before surgery; in the case of the world's heritage, the Question is not sought - rather, the knife.
The subject is crippled because he may lose his memory, his facility with language, years of acquired wisdom, and his ability to draw parallels and apply reason. The society is likewise crippled because it forgets its history, its linguistic experiments, the fruit of eras of trials, and, as it were, its mind.
A likely retort to this comparison would be that the subject is not crippled, but made free. How liberating it would be to forget one's personal errors, the confines of one's language, one's prejudices one's reason! And yet how terrifying! And how still more terrifying it would be to put such a subject at the wheel of one's speeding car, in charge of one's government, or in charge of one's children!
The tossing-off of old books as so many sandbags preventing the upward progress of humanity puts too much faith in the present course and too little faith in the sandbags' stuff. Aside from the fact that many of our institutions owe their conception to dead scribblers, any sensible attempt to criticize these institutions must petition their creators. A slew of potent arguments for and against the structure of American government has been made in the Federalist and anti-Federalist Papers; the seeds of socialism can be found in Plato; a sort of libertarianism suffuses Epicurus. Is it merely a thirst for fame that leads moderns to try to reconstruct the mind or the polis from the ground up? Is humanity willing to repeat the same moronic mistakes, as long as they bear the present's faddish imprimatur?
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