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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What Books Would You Take to a Brave New World?

When prospective colonists, preparing to embark for North America in the seventeenth century, came to pack their belongings for the long voyage in crowded little ships, the decision as to what to take and what to eliminate was a matter of such vital importance that it might mean success or failure, life or death. Since freight was high and even the most elementary essentials of life had to be transported, the wonder is that the emigrants found room for such luxuries as books. But the fact is that they did. 
 -       Louis B. Wright, The Cultural Life of the American Colonies, 1607-1763, Chapter 6, “Books, Libraries and Learning”
What books did the early American colonists bring to the New World? The Bible, of course, and works of theology considered important in their time; lots of history (“the sweetest recreation of the mind,” according to Richard Braithwaite, author of The English Gentleman, published in 1630), both ancient and contemporary; and practical books on farming and what passed in that day for medicine. For the “gentleman,” as well as the educated theologian, works by classical Greek or Latin authors were de rigueur, either in the original language (often) or in translation. The colonists also loved encyclopedic books of knowledge, a foundation in their time for adult, or continuing, education. For example, Pierre de La Primaudaye’s The French Academy (not to be confused with the Académie Française) is identified by Wright as “an outline of knowledge with a strong emphasis on the natural sciences, heavily moralized to take away any taint of damnation which meddling with God’s mysteries might have suggested.” They also held onto their grammar school books long after leaving the classroom and referred in later life to their old textbooks on rhetoric and logic.

Previous chapters of Wright’s book, on “Diversity of Religions” and “Zeal for Education,” give striking evidence of the forest of fear and suspicion with which members of various religious sects regarded one another in the colonial period (such sentiments and opinions in our own time are nothing new to the New World), and yet, despite these conflicts, the author insists that similarities between 17th-century colonists’ private libraries are as striking as their differences and claims that “the intellectual differences between New Englanders and Virginians were not as great as some of their descendants would have us believe.” It is a sobering thought, to think that, for all the animosity and conflict between Christians and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans, everyone else and Quakers, perhaps Americans over 300 years ago shared more common values than Americans today.*

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been wondering -- about myself and my fellow Americans, but I’ll pose the question in the second person: If you were leaving home, ancestors and family history forever behind and heading into the Great Unknown, to start a new life in a New World, what books – if any – would you take with you? If no books, why not, and what else would you take in their place? Think of this question not only in terms of your own survival, well-being, recreation and interests but also in terms of what would benefit future generations in what would be their native land.
*Democracy is a difficult art of government, demanding of its citizens high ratios of courage and literacy, and at the moment we lack both the necessary habits of mind and a sphere of common reference. The marvel of postmodern communications—five hundred television channels, CD-ROMs, the Internet—invites each of us to construct a preferred reality, furnished ... with the objects of wish and dream. The commonwealth of shared meaning divides into remote worlds of our own invention, receding from one another literally at the speed of light.  
- Lewis Lapham, “Bomb-o’Gram,” July 1995, included in his collection entitled Waiting for the Barbarians, published by Verso in 1997


Dawn said...

I have never thought about which books I'd take. I have so many in my head. And I don't usually reread books. This is a hard question. I think in the end it would be reference books on survival that I'd need in the new world.

twessell said...

Great question! There are too many books to identify just a few. Your question is as difficult as the question raised by reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – "if you had to memorize a single book to risk its extinction, which book would it be?" My list would include Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Twain’s Huck Finn. I think it would be easier to identify which books that I've read would I leave behind...