Books as time capsules

I always read a lot, mostly books (rarely magazines, rarely newspapers) but since I finished my latest draft of Dark Fire I have been on an absolute binge. Between my proximity to UVA’s Alderman and Clemons libraries, and my own collection, and new and used books continually available for purchase, I live happily in a wilderness of temptation, with very little inclination to resist.

This morning I finished Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Times to Remember and it occurred to me how fortunate we are to have books. Here is a book published in 1974, which I am led to read more than 40 years later, and the author’s message is still there to be read. I re-read Profiles in Courage (the same paperback book I bought as a teenager) and it is a message from John F. Kennedy written more than 60 years ago, and more relevant today than ever, because the mainstream culture has moved so far away from what were the norms of the post-World War II world that his idealism comes as a fresh breeze from far away.

I read Emerson, and am reminded that things were every bit as bad in 1854 as in 2017: “The lesson of these days is the vulgarity of wealth. We know that wealth will vote for the same thing which the worst and meanest of the people vote for. Wealth will vote for rum, will vote for tyranny, will vote for slavery, will vote against the ballot, will vote against international copyright, will vote against schools, colleges, or any high direction of public money.”

How many years has Emerson been dead? (The answer, he died in 1882, but that’s not the point) Yet his words still speak to us. It is as he said in another place:

“What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library! A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years, can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us. The thought which they might not even reveal to their best friends is written here in clear words for us, people from another century.”


How fortunate we are to have books. If today they are electronic as much as paper, that has its advantages too: An electronic book that may be searched for a given word or phrase is a miracle of convenience, freeing us from the limitations of index or table of contents. Remove these time capsules, and what is left of our civilization will not be worth saving, nor will it endure very long.

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