I am told by my betters that I am too negative. Not for the first time, of course. So I have looked again at this ongoing collapse of Western Civilization that surrounds me in the rubble of all that I hold dear—other than family and friends—in the hope of finding some morsel of good cheer, happiness, and prospect for good times ahead.
Lo, I have found it this day with the arrival of another volume I had just ordered through the all-knowing internet (in this instance AbeBooks.com, a subsidiary of the mighty Amazon) for my current project—I am re-writing A Young Man from Mars, and I’d already sold some of my original research materials from that project several years ago). This is a copy of Alexis De Tocqueville’s translated and edited journals, written on his Journey to America during his quest to understand the still new Democracy in America, which was his greater effort. Lovely stuff.
But it is not that stuff that I’m taking note of here. That book is just the cause of a brief and sudden enlightenment.
The fact is that there is no affordable edition of the Tocqueville journals available outside of print-on-demand. This would suffice if I were younger and had better eyes, for the newly minted soft cover issuance is made on terribly bright white paper, glued tight at the binding, and poorly copied from an original printing so that the typography is a muddied pie that hurts the eye (never mind the photographically reduced type size to meet the economy of quick production). And as an added benefit, you can actually get a paper cut from turning a page!
However! I now hold in my hands a copy of the excellent 1960 Yale University edition of Journey to America, translated by George Lawrence and edited by J. P. Mayer, hard cover in cloth, and printed with all the excellence of the craft in that time, on paper that is gently yellowed (and now even easier on the eye), with a sewn binding that opens flat and typography that is clean and adequately large to comfortably read for hours—which is what will happen again shortly.
Yet, it is not only my personal good fortune in procuring this volume that brightens my day. It is the realization of how this bit of serendip came to be. You see, I am now the beneficiary of the afore mentioned collapse of Western Civilization! My wonderful volume was until recently the property of a State College library. It is Ex-libris! ‘Withdrawn.’ Disposed of. As libraries divest themselves of the great literature of mankind in favor of the fungible bits and bites of electronic media, there are now on the market millions of well-made volumes of very fine fiction, history, poetry and essay, as well as biography, to be had for tuppence!
And with this particular volume I see attached in the pocket at the rear endpapers the library card with the Dewey catalogue number and title and two lined columns, one for the date due when it was taken out by a student of Western Culture and another for their name. The book was brand spanking new when it was first taken out in 1961. It wasn’t read again until 1963. The again in 1965, 1976, 1980, 1982 and last in July of 2008. Am I reading too much into this by thinking that the fall of Western Civilization can be seen in those seven borrowings over more than forty years! This is not a difficult book. It is rife with terrific detail on a moment in time—the 1830’s in America. Yet, only seven people thought it worth the effort to carry home. I can only guess how small the original print run must have been. And no wonder it is so difficult to come by today.
So, if your hunger is for the words and not the slick cover—if your heart is made joyful by the feel of a good book, the beauty of a phrase and the meaning of ‘is,’ then these can now be yours, for a time, at little cost. Get them while you can! Because, it is a fact that much of this effluence of former library copies is headed for the landfill and the paper shredder as state and town budgets dictate the need of space for more bureaucrats at higher salaries and more media centers filled with expensive equipment and software which will be soon out-of-date and need to be replaced and thus the want for fewer shelves. The physical offal of that now accursed age of Gutenberg won’t be around forever. Take advantage, before it’s too late—and rejoice!
And if you are fortune, your children my keep a few of the best volumes for your grandchildren, that they may know what a good book once was.