Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wisdom for the New Year from Isaac and Others

My early connection with Isaac B. Werner grew from our mutual passion for reading and our common belief in the benefits to each generation from reading the wisdom of their forefathers that can be found in books.  (See "Isaac's Library," Blog Archives 2-2-2012.)

On the last day of 1870 Isaac recorded in his journal recent purchases of books, including legal maxims, history, poetry, and art, expressing his wish for the financial resources to have purchased more.  He wrote:  "But there is nothing like patience to conquer great many things & undertakings.  Whether I really increased the value of my real estate & chattles [sic] during this last year or not, I confidently feel that I enriched my mind, satisfactory to my desire--beyond my any expectations--and in my eye that looks a fortune worth possessing--'O learn thou young man...'"

At FDR's Museum and Library
When my husband and I visited Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Museum and Library, we paused to read the words he had spoken at the dedication: "...the dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith.  To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things.  It must believe in the past.  It must believe in the future.  It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future."

As a reader and a writer, I am always saving quotes about books and writing.  For many years, Salmon Rushdie lived in hiding, constantly guarded by a police team devoted to protecting him from the fatwa issued against him because of words he had written.  Rushdie was required to give himself a new name to protect his identity, and even the policemen guarding him in the privacy of his various hiding places called him by that name, training themselves never to call out his real name in a moment of carelessness.  He chose as his pseudonym a combination of the names of two of his favorite authors--Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.  His recent book, Joseph Anton, A Memoir, describes those years of isolation, when he questioned whether his words were worthy of the sacrifices it cost not only him but also his friends and family.  For a time, he questioned whether he should have censored himself, whether he should have written fiction about a subject some found offensive, whether the writing he believed truly important actually made a difference in the greater world.  For a time he thought he had lost the ability to write anything, so crippled was he by the isolation and emotional stress.  Eventually, he found his answers and wrote these words:  "This is what literature knew, had always known.  Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be.  Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before."  Rushdie could not stop writing about things he believed to be important, nor could he apologize for what he had written because his story offended some--not ever, and especially, not now, in "an age in which men and women were being pushed toward ever narrower definitions of themselves."         

Milton's Areopagitica
In reaching his answer, Rushdie found a quote from Milton's Areopagitica that reaffirmed his decision.  "He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself...Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."

Thomas Jefferson is famous for his love of books, having said, "I cannot live without books."  In fact, he loved books so much that he nearly bankrupted himself buying them!  After the British burned the Capitol in the War of 1812, it was the purchase of books from Thomas Jefferson's library that formed the core of our Library of Congress.  Jefferson's belief in the necessity for American citizens to read and study in order for the nation to prosper is expressed in these words:  "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." 

Katherine Hepburn, never one to waste words in her pithy comments stated it more simply.  "What in the world would we do without our libraries?" 

Thomas Jefferson
As Isaac Werner regarded with satisfaction the books he had studied during the previous months, he reflected on the months ahead.  "These last hours of 1870, who may see the last of 1871, only 365 days, but what changes may take place in that very short time to come.  How many a now warm beating pulse may rest motionless till then, and what [future] Shakespeare may take his life in the meantime to shine some future day, an ornament to the period.  Very nearly can I say that I enter the New Year--at least--without pressing debts, about $40.00 near at hand to liquidate, while I have also just the cost in pocket to meet same, any amount square.  While that would leave me about square and strapped--but how many would feel rich at that..."  Isaac continued by enumerating books on painting, Shakespeare, history, the Bible, Don Quixote, and Gibbon's Roman Empire that he wished to buy, including in the enumeration their prices.  He concluded by admitting that "I can't hardly spare so much money at once...but will have to take it cooly and get them by degrees."  He prioritized his wish list, writing, "The following works I long to possess, but not quite as much in a hurry as some above named, but I expect in due course of time to possess them all, and arranged in my library." 

Isaac concluded his New Year's Eve ruminations with this maxim:  "God hath provided wisdom the reward of study," words reflected a century later in FDR's belief that Americans must "learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future."

With 2014 just begun, the words of these wise people, reminding us of the importance of reading, seem particularly important!



Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Comment from JS, my Librarian, received via e-mail: Super post, Lyn! I wish Isaac were a patron of my library! What great discussions we could have...

The Blog Fodder said...

No wonder you and Isaac are kindred spirits. Books books books.
My family loved books from an early age. When my kids moved it was 20 boxes of stuff and 20 boxes of books