Tuesday, March 27, 2012


March 27, 2012:

A cold day, chilly in the house. It takes a long time to warm this house up. Yesterday was warmer and I spent a good part of the day on the front porch, which is enclosed but still the coldest room, going through books. I'm engaged in a major thinning operation, hoping to get rid of a thousand of them, maybe more, out of the six or seven thousand I own. When you own that many, and the house is too small to put them all on shelves, you wind up not knowing what you have or where to find it, and that's frustrating. I recently wrote a piece for Military History magazine on WW II in Yugoslavia and the editors couldn't find a decent map showing what territories were occupied by what forces during the war. I happened to find what they wanted in a used bookstore a day later, but going through my books yesterday I found at the bottom of a pile an historical atlas of the Balkans I had forgotten I owned. So it's time to bring it all into some kind of order. I can't work anyway. Burned out by the latest magazine piece, on Faberge.

Anyway I've done this before, although not often on this scale, and it requires a certain amount of self examination, because ultimnately it's about who you are, what you know, why you wanted to know it. Take all the books on mind and consciousness that I'm now getting rid of. Acquiring those books started when I did a piece maybe thirty years ago for Psychology Today called "Selves." It went on for pages and pages, that piece; it was the longest piece they ever published; and my wife remembers reading it before she knew me and being very annoyed by it, although she did finish it, because it opened with an experience I had had, namely seeing myself on TV for the first time, and she seemed to think I was bragging. But I wasn't bragging; the piece was really about the slipperiness of the concept of self and the many different ideas about the self that had prevailed over the course of Western history. I was especially interested in the mind/body problem and the fact that philosophers and scientists are still arguing about it, trying to determine how minds, which are non-material, can emerge from material objects like brains. When you write 7,500 words on a subject like that you can't help but think you'd like to know more, write more, contribute in a more substantial way to the argument, and so over the years you tend to accumulate books on consciousness and the philosophy of mind and I have a fair number. But now I know I'll never write that book. It's one of too many subjects that really went nowhere for me. Often it's the lack of a venue in which to pursue the subject that determines your interests. Now I'm getting rid of them.

All my books have stories like that behind them. They represent interests pursued and then abandoned, as in this case, or interests put aside for a time, or interests I still intend to take up, they are the material signs of my intellectual history, and they have two values for me: the personal, and their value in dollars. Most of them won't bring much. But their personal value can be great. I just won't get rid of my editions of John Donne or Edmund Spenser or the like, even though I'm not likely to look at them more than once again in my lifetime, because that's where I started out, in English literature, that's my first love; for a while it's where I wanted to spend my life. Unfortunately I didn't like to teach, hadn't the patience for it, and I could see, too, how petty the politics of university life was. It wasn't for me. (It's interesting how much of my identity is based on refusals; I wonder how much that's true for other people.) Other books you keep for other reasons. I have a little book aimed at women from the mid-nineteenth century called How to Be Pretty Though Plain. I keep it for the title alone, which is charming and sad at the same time. I won't sell my copy of Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, which is in Latin--I no longer read Latin--because it's an Aldine Press edition, one of the first pocket-size books, published in 1546. 1546! The oldest object I possess, beautifully printed, immaculate paper. I paid $10 for it at an antique shop. It's imperfect--someone took a colored pencil to it at one point in its past and underlined some pages, and its monetary value is therefore quite modest. But that's all right. It's a reminder of what a well-made book is like, in a world of planned obsolescence. And I have several shelves filled with early Modern Library editions, when they were printing them with leatherette bindings. They're mostly from the 1920s and they're a record of what the 1920s thought would be books of enduring value: Maeterlinck; James Branch Cabell; George Meredith; Gabriele D'Annunzio; Max Stirner. Who? Max Stirner? The first line of J. L. Walker's Introduction to Max Stirner's book, The Ego and His Own, reads, "Fifty years sooner or later can make little difference in the case of a book as revolutionary as this." Really. I can think of few books as unread, as forgotten, as this. How, then, could I get rid of it?

But scholarship that's out of date, history books that have been superceded by newer books that have gone deeper into the archives, they will go. How many histories written in the past can we read with profit? There are the classics, Thucydides, Herodotus, Gibbon, and the like, but how about Polybius? I have a four-volume translation fo Polybius and I'd love to sell it, but I've tried, and it turns out to be a drug on the market, nobody wants it. Then I have a copy of Jacob Burkhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, written in the nineteenth century. It's a handsome copy, a small quarto, full of pictures. I read the book, but not this copy, forty years ago, and I loved it. So dramatic, so powerful. But who accepts his version of the Renaissance any more? Very few. It's yes and no on this one. But yes, I'll keep it. I can't get rid of books I once loved.

So there it is. I have to look at every book, look into it, before I make a decision. This is my life, my mind, I'm dealing with, this is me in a sense, where I've been, where I'm going, and there is so much I still want to know. The books I haven't read yet exert a pressure; it's almost as if they whisper to me from the walls. Jefferson said he couldn't imagine his life without books, and I know what he meant. I'll get rid of this 1,000, but others will come into the house. They come unbidden; I'm still getting books from publishers who think I'm still a reviewer. They send them even when they know I'm not. Publishers of all people respect the lover of books; I might talk about them, I might be a source of the word of mouth they value so much. Because in the end a book is nothing without its readers, nothing but paper, cardboard, and ink. Valueless. There are books, then, that I keep out of sheer respect: for the work, the tremendous effort, and the skill that went into making them. I'll never read all that I have, but that's not the point, really. How often do I look at the art on our walls here? The point is to surround yourself with objects of knowledge, interest, beauty--absorbing objects, objects you can bury your mind in, objects you can talk to. Otherwise life is bleak, lonely in some essential sense. You have less of a connection with the world. Books are the engine of thought; you cannot really go anywhere without them, or know much. Without them your life is inevitably far less than it should be.

Friday, March 9, 2012


March 9, 2012:

The other day, trying to keep up, always a challenge, I read a piece in the New York Review of Books by William Nordhaus on climate change, and here is Paul Krugman, writing today about Republicans and higher education, under the ironic title "Ignorance Is Strength." Republicans doubt the value of higher education, according to Krugman, partly because in the colleges and universities the scientific faculty are all Democrats (which they are, reports Krugman, by a factor of nine to one); and they can see them corrupting the minds of America's young with leftist ideology--like climate change. When in fact we all know from the Bible, which is the only book that anybody really needs, that God put the earth here for mankind to use as we wish, and God being Almighty, we therefore have nothing to fear from the earth. He'll fix everything.

Fifty years ago that would have been a gross mischaracterization of the Republican position on such an issue; then Republicans were as eager to develop nuclear energy, cure cancer, and ride the sciences to the future as Democrats were. Now, it seems, not so much. Now they remind me of the Catholic Church in Galileo's time. No, the Church thundered, the sun revolves around the earth, as do the planets and the stars, and there are 1,029 stars (really; that was the count), they are fixed in the sphere they belong to, as are the planets, each in its sphere, and the moon in its. They put Galileo on trial for his life for demonstrating otherwise, and in 1610, if I have the date right, they forbade the teaching of what we know now to be the truth, on the literal pain of Inquisition: i.e., torture. Galileo sensibly recanted, saving his skin, and ultimately the truth prevailed.

But it takes a long time for the truth to prevail. Copernicus first introduced his theory that the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa, in 1543, give or take a year; it took about 150 years before it was generally accepted in astronomical circles, and for some in the Church it was not until the nineteenth century that it became an acceptable fact. Ignorance is always slow to dissipate. In the Middle Ages it was taken as fact that the Garden of Eden was a real place, still existing in the world, and there was a great deal of speculation about where exactly it was to be found; speculation continued into the age of exploration, into the Renaissance, and Columbus was persuaded he had found the site in what we now know to be South America, at the headwaters of the Orinoco. A hundred years later Sir Walter Raleigh bought into this idea, too, and pressed his search for El Dorado into the same area. You still see on TV the occasional documentary about people searching Mt. Ararat in Turkey for the remains of Noah's Ark, even though it is a settled fact that there is not and never has been enough water on the earth to cover it to the altitude it would require to place an ark there. The Garden of Eden, by the way, stood on a mountain high enough to allow it to escape the Flood: that was Doctrine.

And now, climate change. Global warming. If the planet has not shrugged us off by then, as it shrugged off the dinosaurs, we will look back four or five hundred years hence and wonder at the same level of the doctrinaire, the same kind of embrace of ignorance represented now by the Republican Party as was embraced by the Catholic Church four or five hundred years earlier. It is amazing. Fifty years ago, when I was young, I would never have predicted this; Republicans and Democrats alike were science enthusiasts, and when John Glenn orbited the earth, the first American to do so, the whole country rejoiced. Not just Democrats. And what made that orbit possible? The Enlightenment. The scientific revolution that began in the late Renaissance and followed it into modern times. Hundreds of years, in other words, of scientific and technological development that left antique, mythical conceptions of the universe and the earth's place in it far behind.

What happened to that Republican Party? The Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhauer had been for a few years the president of Columbia University, and there was little question about his commitment to knowledge and science. The appallingly ignorant George W. Bush had no idea where Iraq was until he invaded it and had never, if I remember correctly, been to Europe before he ran for president. Increasingly we stand alone in the developed world, not at the head of it but at the rear. Our schools are bad and getting worse; our students are falling farther and farther behind; and a significant percentage of the electorate thinks global warming is an elitist myth. Evidently it will take a real Flood this time to wake them up to reality. Four or five hundred years from now people, if there are still many of them left, will look back and say, "They could have prevented it from happening. What were they thinking? Just how stupid were they?"

There's something about the human mind, something in it that fears knowledge and the change it brings, that clings to old certainties or what it thinks are certainties, that wants everything to stay just as it was in the good old days. It's the same thing that condemned Socrates to drink the hemlock, that locked Galileo in a dungeon and threatened him with the rack, and that now denies the truth of global warming and wants to believe that evolution is "just a theory." And it is this that now dominates one of our two major political parties and seeks the power to return us to much darker times, when knowledge was persecuted and suppressed as a matter of policy and everybody knew his or her place.