“What a miracle that the writings and the words of great people had been preserved for thousands of years even before an age of books came into existence!”
If we need an excuse for giving thanks, John Lukacs in “Surrounded by Books” proposes one that is inarguable. Here’s a thought experiment: In a pre-literate era, you are acquainted with a storyteller, one whose tales are exciting and suspenseful but also suffused with the spirit of your time and place, its savagery and heroism. Would you listen and forget about them until the next time, the way we listen to old pop songs on the radio, or would you memorize his words with the intent of passing them along to friends and heirs? Would you become a living book, the embodiment of another’s sensibility? We could be describing the posthumous fate of Homer or Mandelstam.
We are spoiled, of course. Thanks to libraries and the internet, we can acquire any book we want, without effort and at small cost. As the Hungarian-born historian begins his essay: “Surrounded by books has been a main circumstance of my long life.” But ready availability does not translate into vigorous appetites for books. Lukacs is an intelligent man, not given to soft-headed, optimistic forecasts. Few people read and fewer still read essential books. Lukacs cites the usual culprits – television, internet, the death of public education. But the educated classes bear much of the responsibility. They have repudiated the very civilization that made them and their jobs possible. Lukacs is ninety-three and sanguine about his fate and the fate of his substantial library:
“Perhaps I have been not much more than an ephemeral owner of an outdated museum.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.”
Like any good historian, Lukacs puts our unhappy situation in the larger context. Everything passes. Like medieval Irish monks, readers here and there keep civilization vital. Lukacs writes:
“In 1517, exactly 500 years ago, Erasmus wrote that the Middle Ages (a term then yet-unknown) were passing and something of a newer and golden age was about to begin. Today, few people possess that kind of optimism or know that the `Modern’ Age, the Age of Books, is now passing.”
Of related interest are many passage in Frederic Raphael’s new book, Antiquity Matters (Yale University, 2017). Late in the volume he writes: “Jorge Luis Borges was not alone in remarking that dictators force writers to be more subtle than is necessary in a permissive society. Brave words are easy when they carry no penalty.” Like Gibbon, Raphael reserves some of his best stuff for his footnotes. Here is his annotation to the passage just quoted:
“Borges’s own dissent from the usurping putschists in his native Argentina was so nuanced as to be all but indiscernible. Boris Pasternak was similarly quiescent under Stalin, unlike his friend Osip Mandelstam, whom he failed to support when it might have saved Mandelstam’s life. Pasternak was scorned for his cowardice by Stalin himself, but survived to win the Nobel Prize for Doctor Zhivago, which Vladimir Nabokov despised as he did all accommodation with the ideologists and fellow-travelers whose jargon had debased the great Russian language.”
For some, writing and reading remain matters of life and death.