December 8, 2017

BUT WHAT A WAY TO GO...:

Surrounded by Books (John Lukacs, NOVEMBER 02, 2017, Chronicles)

The "Blessings of Old Age"?  Oh, not at all.  How very soon I shall be dead.  In a year?  In a few months?  In a few weeks?  I hope that I will not be constrained to move from here to a communal nursing home.  I hope; but I cannot know.  What I know is that, after my death, this library, this house, will instantly be changed.  They are my inheritance for my children and my stepson.  My house will be sold at once.  My books will go to the library of the University of Notre Dame, thanks to the excellent Rev. Wilson D. (Bill) Miscamble, C.S.C.  My furniture and the decorations, chests, vitrines, armoires, antique clocks, paintings, and etchings on the walls will be dispersed among my children or sold.  They are still my surroundings, which in this country I assembled from an older America, England, France, Austria, and even one or two pieces from my family in Hungary, miraculously regained almost 70 years ago.  Perhaps I have been not much more than an ephemeral owner of an outdated museum.  I am not a survivor.  I am a crumbling remnant.  A remnant of the very end of the Bourgeois Age and a remnant of the Age of Books.  Ave atque vale.

Five-hundred years after the beginning of the Age of Books, the mass of printed materials is still enormous, while the custom of reading and the numbers of readers have enormously declined.  There are no useful statistics of this devolution, of which television has been a main instrument, but there were symptoms of that even before this decline.  More and more people had been reading not books, but newspapers and other periodical publications.  Then in the mid-1950's, even the enormous Curtis publishing empire, whose monumental building in Philadelphia towered over Independence Hall, began to collapse.  Its main publications were the Saturday Evening Post (with an enormous circulation in the early 20th century) and the Ladies' Home Journal.

What Cicero was supposed to have said 2,000 years ago ("All I want is a book and a garden") and a literate Englishman 200 years ago ("A study full of books is worth more than a purse full of money") were statements from a long-faded past.  But it was not until the end of the 20th century that the disappearance of large numbers of readers finally led to drastic changes in the publishing of all kinds of reading matter, very much including books.  The massive influence of pictures and images had already preceded that (the movies).  But the death of the Age of Books, and of newspapers and magazines, was, indeed, television, followed by the Internet.  Already by the early 1990's, many weeklies, magazines, journals, and quarterlies ceased to exist.  Entire large and traditional publishing houses went out of business.  Others cut their staffs to minimums.  Bookstores began to disappear.  In most schools there still was a minority of good students.  Even they read very little.

All of these transformations may suggest one momentous change: the declining effect of words.  "In the beginning was the Word"--and at the end of an age?  The incredible spread and availability of communications holds little promise, because communications are only instruments of transmissions.  Meanwhile, a great and deep consequence of the declining human respect for, and therefore the function of, words is the increasing evidence of the weakening of attention, seen in more and more spheres of life.

Still, history is unpredictable.  God writes straight with crooked lines.  And things are never quite as bad (or as good) as they seem.  Books will always exist.  Jefferson's category of the educated minority, on whose existence the prospects of civilized mankind depend, is no longer enough.  To educated we need to add interested.  The very impulse of human attention depends on human interest, a quality often involved with humility, with our capacity of seeing beyond ourselves.  This awareness sometimes issues from reading.

In 1955, Harold Nicolson wrote, "I am confident that in coming generations the proportion of uninteresting people will be much diminished, whereas the proportion of interesting people will increase."  In 1950, the great English bibliophile Holbrook Jackson (borrowing from Aldous Huxley) declared, "the proper study of mankind is books."  I am uncertain about the first of these statements, but not about the second.  Now consider that Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga, two of the greatest historians of the Age of Books, wrote their most famous histories less for professional academic historians than for what in their lifetime could still be regarded as an educated and interested public.  And when on occasion someone asked Burckhardt how best to study history, the great man answered in three words: "Bisogna saper leggere."

"You must know how to read."

Posted by at December 8, 2017 7:43 PM

  

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