Friday, February 8, 2013
America on a Bookshelf
For reasons that might be gone into at a later time, I found myself the other night wanting to re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown.” No doubt it could have been done online, but it wasn’t necessary. I just sauntered over to the bookshelf where I keep The Library of America and took down the author’s Tales and Sketches, some 900 pages worth. Goodman Brown occupied pages 276 to 289.
It’s a luxury, one of the few I can afford, to be able to do this. I began subscribing to The Library of America, an attempt to provide definitive high-quality hardcover versions of this nation’s written classics, when it first started in the 1980s. A few years ago, when the offerings seemed to be getting more and more abstract, I let my subscription lapse.
Despite some issues with the series’ editors (why did it take them more than two decades to get out a book of H.L. Mencken?), I regard those books as treasures and go back to them often. The big name books and stories are all there, of course, but that only scratches the surface.
From Abe Lincoln to Bill Clinton
Speeches? You want speeches? LOA has the usual suspects, such as the Gettysburg Address, but also the full text of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, which arguably won him the presidency. Not to mention FDR’s first inaugural, Martin Luther King’s last sermon, and Bill Clinton’s remarks on the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High in Little Rock. That last one is all but forgotten, but also absolutely terrific.
There are Edward R. Murrow’s World War II reports from London during the Blitz, casual letters that Lincoln tossed off during the Civil War, reports on commerce that Alexander Hamilton wrote for Congress, speeches and pamphlets produced during the debate on the Constitution, and reporting of all kinds from the Vietnam war.
Francis Parkman’s seven-volume history of France and England in the New World is in the canon, as is Henry Adams’ history of the United States from 1801 to 1817. (I’ve read Parkman, but haven’t got to Adams yet.) If that’s a little too dry and schoolmarmish for your taste, you could salaciously turn to Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech on Onanism or Benjamin Franklin’s letter to a young man about the virtues of older women as mistresses.
The Pleasures of Discovery
Much of what I’ve written about above I would never have encountered without those books on my shelves. From time to time, when I’m at loose ends, I’ll pick up one of the books and thumb through the table of contents to pick out something to read. And I’ve found a lot of neat stuff that way.
To me the big difference between books and the internet is this: The internet is great for looking up things you specifically want to know about; it’s not so great for serendipitous discoveries. That’s where books excel. I can walk over to the Library of America shelf on a slow day, scan the authors names, decide I’m in the mood for a bit of Hamilton or Jefferson, pull down a book, and select something to read that will about fill the time I have at my disposal.
It’s a good way to be exposed to something you would never have set out to look for. That exposure, in turn, holds the potential for adding to your store of knowledge and exposing you to good ideas. Random learning, to be sure, but sometimes that can be the best kind.