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Witness Post: In Defense of Books?

“Without books the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are the engines of change, windows on the world, ‘Lighthouses’ as the poet said ‘erected in the great sea of time.’ They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.” – Arthur Schopenhauer [1]

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Arthur Schopenhauer

 

Lawrence Lewis Anderson

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Lawrence Lewis Anderson

Lawrence Anderson, of Louisville Kentucky, was a strange and curious character in my lineage.  Not that his brothers, Virgil and Warwick, could be dubbed “normal,” it was all a matter of degree.  Virgil, also known as Virg and Butch, was an alcoholic and a sweet man.  We all loved him for his soft quiet manner, gentleness with animals and his smile. Warwick was as smart as a whip and a great story teller, who had been successful in his career and a gentleman photographer in his retirement. Lawrence had served in the armed services, worked as a salesman, traveled the globe and read extensively.  One thing that set Lawrence apart from his brothers was his telephone love affair with his sister, Mildred, for most of his life.

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Nassau Hall, Princeton

A Princeton grad, Lawrence introduced his sister, Mildred, to my grandfather, James E. Hooper. They attended a chaperoned dance in Princeton, fell in love, and married right after World War I; the rest is history.  Uncle Lawrence never married. “He’s a devout bachelor, always has been,” said my grandmother.  He often adjusted and readjusted his trousers around his crotch area.  It was an older man’s version of teenage pocket-pool, as far as I could tell.

When first meeting Uncle Lawrence, he was retired and living in a private room at the Nassau Club in Princeton, New Jersey.  At the time some garret rooms were assigned as permanent residences for alumni who wanted to call it home.  The rooms had a water closet but no kitchen, so the guests ate downstairs in the Club.

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Nassau Club, Princeton

My great uncle had all of his earthly possessions stuffed in that small top floor room: a mahogany bed, a chest of drawers, an English writing desk, an armoire, and his books – lots of books.  Dictionaries, thesauruses, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Wordsworth, he enjoyed them all. Among his favorite books was a hardbound set of Samuel Pepys Diaries, all six volumes. During my college years I visited Uncle Lawrence at Princeton about once a year, typically. I would stop by to see him while passing on the New Jersey Turnpike between Baltimore and New Haven.  He came to see me play lacrosse on the Princeton fields, witnessing with a degree of delight, while his Tigers thrashed the Bulldog. My first cousin, Phil Hooper, went to Princeton and Uncle Lawrence said he never saw Phil on campus.  “He’s not the intellectual type.”

Phil was happy-go-lucky student with lots of friends.  He was also a gifted athlete.  He played varsity lacrosse for the Tigers in those years.  In our head-to-head jousting, Phil always got the better of me, winning on the face-offs and scoring on the extra man offense. Phil came to a Bladderball weekend at Yale once, visiting his Andover buddies in New haven.  I ran into him outside the President’s house on Hillhouse Avenue, as his group delivered the deflated ball and toasted to victory.  They all drank from a massive pewter mug filled to the brim with a special elixir. “Hey, Henry, you Yalies are not the stiff old bastards I thought you were!”  After that greeting, off he trotted with his buddies, back to the Pierson courtyard for a keg party. I went to the library.

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Bladderball Weekend, Yale (1970’s)

Yale University’s Books

The main library at Yale, the Sterling Memorial Library, was once one of the largest libraries in the world, archiving millions of editions of books and monographs from around the globe. In the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale, there are two complete Gutenberg Bibles, along with an treasure trove of some of the greatest rare books, maps, and bibliophile antiquities on the planet. The University, it would be correct to say, has always had a love affair with books.

Sterling Exterior

Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, exterior

The University itself is named after the Welch merchant, Elihu Yale, who is reported to be the most over-rated philanthropist in the history of education.  Not a great benefactor, the naming of the new college in colonial Connecticut is full of irony.  The founding teachers of the college decided to name the new college after Elihu Yale in hopes that he would in gratitude leave his fortune to the school.  Elihu Yale’s original interest in Connecticut was whetted when, at the request of Cotton Mather, Yale donated the school a large container from one of his merchant ships. The container held nine bales of various goods, including 417 books and a portrait of King George I. Historians have scant records of what happened to the King’s portrait. The 9 bales were sold for 900 pounds sterling and the books were put on the shelves in a classroom for the teachers and students to use. This first auspicious gift to Yale College, was its namesake’s first and last.

So much for old books!

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Lawrence Anderson, photo by Warwick Anderson, 1971

Not a Peep

On one visit Uncle Lawrence said that he enjoyed our conversations, as they had a clear intellectual balance. He asked if I had ever read the Diaries of Samuel Pepys, when I said, “No,” he said that he recommended them highly adding, “I have read them about a dozen times and they make me want to go to London.”  My mother and father actually went to London with Uncle Lawrence on one of his voyages; the trip brought Pepys to life. That said, my dad lamented that the trip was dreadful. “Lawrence treated your mother terribly and seemed disdainful of everything: what she said in conversation, what she ordered at restaurants … everything. We cut the trip short and made our way back to Baltimore scratching our heads as to why he invited us.  It was very strange.”

When I was in graduate school I saw Uncle Lawrence a few times.  He was in his dotage, living at a retirement facility not far outside of Princeton. We talked about the Anderson family, graduate studies, Ivy League colleges and the like. Then he got personal: “Promise me that you and Tracy won’t do the ‘Catholic thing’ and have all of those children.”  As one of eight children, growing up I had loved the excitement of it all. Never a dull moment. But I knew what he meant.  The comment about Catholicism irked me, but I realized that that was the rub!  I told him that there were a few basic differences in my future life, the greatest was that I was headed to graduate school and it would be physically improbable in my 30’s to have as many children as my nuclear family. My parents had started procreating at 22, Tracy and I were not as ambitious.  That conversation gave him a little comfort. He mainly seemed to want me to acknowledge that I “had heard him.”  I admitted that I had heard him clearly and looked directly into his rheumy, nonagenarian eyes.

I asked him directly about his health. Uncle Lawrence thought about it for a moment and answered me by comparing life to a grand bus tour.  He then confided, “Henry, it is time for me to get off the bus.”  Lawrence Anderson died a few months later, stepping off the bus for good.

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A set of Pepys Diaries

A few months after his death, a box arrived at our apartment in New Haven with some books in it.  Uncle Lawrence had left me the Pepys Diaries in his will. We put the books in a prominent place on our bookshelves, the first of many hardbound books that we were proud to own.

I am ashamed to admit it now, thirty years later, but I only read part of the first volume of Samuel Pepys. It was dull and boring. The stories that Pepys had written about London were rambling.  To me his journaling seemed pointless.  Even when he got to recalling the Great Fire and reporting what he said to the Tower of London authorities, it was like a police blotter rather than an enthusiastic reporter.  It did not seem to be the delightful read that Uncle Lawrence had portrayed. Even in an age before the internet, when books, magazines, radio and television were the preferred means of communication, I did not want to read the rest of these particular volumes.  I would PASS on Uncle Lawrence’s final request and leave the books on the shelf collecting dust.

Fast forward to 2014: Going through the “de-clutter stage” of our lives, Tracy wanted to see if we could take our dusty hardbound books, including the Pepys Diaries, to Powell’s Books in Portland and sell them.  Over my loud protestations, and cry of foul, she folded her arms.  “When was the last time you read those books?”  When I quietly admitted to my history of ennui with the diaries, she put them in the box to cart with us to Powell’s.  I protested, but more meekly than convincingly. Searching on the internet, I discovered that an original set of Pepys Diaries in good condition had been bid up and sold for over $1,000 on E-Bay.  Upon further research, some rare editions went for even more.  My eyes lit up at the prospects of a windfall from Uncle Lawrence, after all.  He may have been strange and mistreated my mother, but he had left us a gem!

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Arriving at Powell’s the clerk who negotiates the amount offered to bibliophiles for their collections spied the Diaries. The officious clerk, picked up one of the Diaries, flipped through it, then took the collection with her to the back wall and picked up the phone.  “This is it,” said Tracy, “she is calling her boss to see how many thousand dollar bills they should peel off for us to take home in exchange for the books!”  Our imaginations went even more wild than before.  Rare books can be worthwhile these days after all, we salivated.

Returning with the collection of books the clerk said, “As you know we have construction going on in the store, and the history section is kept off site. I just called over there and we have another complete set of Pepys Diaries, and, ah, they are not exactly flying off the shelf...You would be better off giving them away and taking the tax write-off.” Stuttering, I put the books back in our box and we shuffled our wounded egos back home.

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Samuel Pepys

Not Exactly Flying Off the Shelf

Driving to the Multnomah Public Library, I handed a weekend volunteer the Diaries and he handed me a blank slip to fill out for tax purposes.  Really?  After all these years I had to give my inheritance of books for a puny tax write-off? It seemed a social and intellectual injustice, but what was I to do?

Filling out the slip, I reflected on Samuel Pepys, my route to find out about him, and the future of books like his diaries. Onward to search the Internet and the new Gutenberg way of publishing! The blogosphere is changing the world.

To update and paraphrase Schopenhauer, “The Internet delivers the WORD to the world. Without the word, the development of civilization would be impossible. The internet is the engine of change, the window on the world, the ‘lighthouse’ as the poet said ‘erected in the great sea of time.’ The internet is our companion, teacher, magician, banker of the treasures of the mind. The Internet is humanity in print. Blog on.”

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Notes:

[1] Schopenhauer was a famous German philosopher, who grew up in what is now Poland, and expanded the teachings of Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Johann von Goethe, and Baruch Spinoza, among others. The “poet” mentioned in Schopenhauer’s quotation above was Edwin Percy Whipple, whom I had not read. Whipple was an American essayist and critic, who lived in Massachusetts.  In his public lectures Whipple was a bold defender of George Washington. In his private life he was a personal friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, serving as one of his pall bearers at his funeral, along with friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

 

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