Surrounded by Books



Surrounded by books has been a main circumstance of my long life.  So it is now, near the end of my 94th year, when I am in my large library of perhaps 18,000 books in the western wing of my house in Chester County, Pennsylvania.  So it was in the beginning: I was born in a sanatorium in Budapest, Hungary, wherefrom, after a day or two, I was translated home to my mother’s bedroom in an airy apartment that housed, among other things, many books.  This I know and can see from photos in a family album, still in my possession.

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!  The word book was there in many languages well before the 16th century a.d.  The Book of God was the Bible, people thought and said.  Even now, the word bible (Gk., β?βλος) refers to and defines the meanings of books (bibliophile, bibliography, etc.)  After about 1500 a new age began; wrongly named the “Modern” Age, it may even be named the Age of Books.  Before that, books were written on wooden tablets or parchments or cloths.  Now books were printed and fastened and bound and stored together.  Their numbers and their availability increased in much of the world.  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.

The increase of books was a result of an increase of reading—or also the other way around.  Who were their readers?  That answer belongs to the history of the so-called Modern Age, to the idea and meaning of progress (another arguable word), and to the transition from the rule of aristocracies to that of democracies.  Consider, if only for a moment, that history is what is still called public opinion.  Public opinion was and is not identical with democracy.  (Wikipedia says that “The desires, wants, and thinking of the majority of the people . . . is called public opinion.”  Wrong.)  The heyday of public opinions in most of Europe and in America were the 18th and 19th centuries, corresponding to the heyday of the Age of Books.  The health of democracies, said and wrote many of the Founding Fathers of the American republic such as Jefferson, depended on the existence of educated people—of readers of books (and also of newspapers).  By and large in the 20th century the rule of aristocracies no longer existed; and meanwhile the custom of reading books was declining.

That “meanwhile” is the main theme of this essay.  Or perhaps of my awareness of what was happening.  Knowledge is inseparable from its knower (whereby “objectivity” as well as “subjectivity” are illusions).  So I am constrained to write about my surrounding books in the 20th century.  I learned how to read and even to write some things at a very early age.  I was much influenced by my father, who was a man of great learning.  He was an eminent physician while being a patron of books.  He must have had more than a thousand of them.  His doctor’s office had three rooms, the first of which was his study.  Still vivid is my visual (and perhaps even an olfactory) memory of that.  At least one wall of it was filled with books surrounding his narrow sofa, above which I can still recall a small classic vitrine housing beautifully bound Greek and Roman authors.  Some time ago I ran across a reference by Proust, written in 1923, to “this old house whose air was saturated with the bouquet of silence.”  I was born the following year, saturated with a bourgeois existence.  My father was urban and urbane.  (Consider that citizen in most languages derives from the inhabitant not of a state but of a city.)  There were at least three famous bookstores in the inner city of Budapest where my father was well known and where he permitted me to buy any book and charge it to his account.  At home the bookcases were part and parcel of the furniture.  My mother, too, loved books.  They divorced when I was eight years old, a tragedy for me.  I went on reading book after book.  Ten years later I had many hundreds.

I was an unattractive boy and a middling student in a classical gymnasium.  Yet two things happened to me then, both with fortunate consequences for my entire life.  One was my burgeoning appetite for history and literature.  This did not involve historical novels but something else: my eventually budding and then flowering recognition that history was more of an art than a science and, later, that science was but a part of history (and not the reverse).  The other was my mother’s Anglophilia.  An Englishman taught me English, and for two summers, I was sent to a private school in England, increasing my knowledge of English and introducing me to English literature.  Thus I survived the years of my ugly adolescence.

And thus I survived the worst horrors and perils of the Second World War, the National Socialist and then the Russian conquest of Hungary in 1944 and 1945.  I began to write here and there.  By 1946, I recognized also that the Russian conquest of Hungary meant the imminent establishment of communism there.  I chose to escape that, preferably to America.  One small episode contributed to that decision.  The Hungarian government was not yet communist, but the political police force was.  One spring day in 1946, the police entered our now-rundown apartment, looking for this and that; they did not find anything, but they had come, of course, because of my connection with the American legation.  After the Russians had occupied Hungary, their then-allies, Britain and the United States, sent a few diplomats to Budapest to form offices there.  I had first gone to the British, offering them my services.  They were not interested, but the Americans were.  In July 1946, the U.S. ambassador gave me a fine letter of recommendation: “To Whom This May Concern.”  I applied for an Hungarian passport, but that was refused me.  I fled my native country illegally on July 22, 1946.  That day, I saw both of my parents for the last time.

Exactly three months later I landed in New York, penniless and forlorn.  Soon Providence and American generosity put me onto the first steps of a startling American career.  Millions of U.S. veterans had just been entitled to enter colleges or universities in America.  There was a sudden dearth of teachers.  Extraordinarily, I became a temporary and part-time assistant lecturer in history at Columbia University.  One year later, I became an assistant teacher at a small college in Philadelphia.  From that moment on, my life in America and the world of books coalesced.  One reason for (or, rather, source of) my loyalty to Chestnut Hill and La Salle colleges in Philadelphia was the astonishing help tendered me by their librarians.  During my single year at the university in Budapest, I had started to advance in the direction of a professional academic historian’s career; I had begun to know a few things about archives, collections of documents, singular manuscripts, etc.  And now, in these small libraries in Philadelphia, I found that, with the enthusiastic help of their librarians, I had little or no problem gaining access to documentary and other materials from other libraries to borrow.  Indeed, I found that my entry into these other magnificent libraries was welcomed, here and there, by their librarians, too.  Furthermore, any book I suggested to the librarians of my small colleges, they would quickly order.  I remain forever grateful to these people.

At the same time, I was surprised at how many American students hardly read books at all.  This was especially so in these small colleges, where many of them were the first college students from their families.  Some of their teachers did not assign additional reading beyond their textbooks.  Never mind: I did.  I gave students in my classes schedules of my lectures for the semester and a compulsory reading list of six or seven books; evidences of their reading such were required in their examinations.  Surprisingly, many of them did not mind that.  Surprising, too, was my gradual realization that many of my social acquaintances did not read much either.  Books were seldom subjects of dinner-party or cocktail-party conversations.  Again, never mind: I found enough men and women who were readers.  And then, after not more than six years in America, I met a famous Philadelphia lawyer who knew many splendid things and who read many books with enduring interest.  In 1953, I married his daughter: How very intelligent, how ladylike, was the eventual mother of my two children!  She read much and, even more, helped me with my work.  Alas, she died 17 years later.  Then I married my second wife, Stephanie, a treasure.

Meanwhile, over roughly 50 years, I wrote and had many books published.  They were published by prime American houses; many of them had multiple editions; most of them were translated and then published in perhaps more than a dozen languages and countries around the world.  Highly respected historians praised them.  I had chosen a country life, separate and independent from most professional intellectuals.  Still, my own library grew.  At first it contained perhaps a thousand books in a small study in our house.  I bought more and more.  Then we added a large hexagonal library to our house, which I could afford, along with travel, because of the royalties advanced against my books from publishers.  North of our house, I had a few acres of wilderness.  In 1981, I convinced Stephanie to sell our house and build another one on the northern edge of the wilderness, along a small river, the Pickering Creek.  So we did, in three years.  Perhaps this was my most precious achievement: a handsome house, near perfect, at the end of a long driveway, for months surrounded by green and gold, flowers, and books—a large library on its western side, on two floors.  More than saturated with a rich silence, this library is.  It exudes an atmosphere.  In this house and in its library, I have now lived a third of a century, from my early 60’s on.  Each morning, trying to catch my breath, I stumble down from my bedroom to the library.  There shuffling, I sit now at a narrow desk tapping at keys with my trembling fingers.  Sometimes on late afternoons I go out to sit on my terrace, breathing in the view of a greensward; and yes, thanking God for having allowed me this.  Then, soused with a stiff drink, I return to my surroundings until dinner.

The “Blessings of Old Age”?  Oh, not at all.  How very soon I shall be dead.  In a year?  In a few months?  In a few weeks?  I hope that I will not be constrained to move from here to a communal nursing home.  I hope; but I cannot know.  What I know is that, after my death, this library, this house, will instantly be changed.  They are my inheritance for my children and my stepson.  My house will be sold at once.  My books will go to the library of the University of Notre Dame, thanks to the excellent Rev. Wilson D. (Bill) Miscamble, C.S.C.  My furniture and the decorations, chests, vitrines, armoires, antique clocks, paintings, and etchings on the walls will be dispersed among my children or sold.  They are still my surroundings, which in this country I assembled from an older America, England, France, Austria, and even one or two pieces from my family in Hungary, miraculously regained almost 70 years ago.  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.

Five-hundred years after the beginning of the Age of Books, the mass of printed materials is still enormous, while the custom of reading and the numbers of readers have enormously declined.  There are no useful statistics of this devolution, of which television has been a main instrument, but there were symptoms of that even before this decline.  More and more people had been reading not books, but newspapers and other periodical publications.  Then in the mid-1950’s, even the enormous Curtis publishing empire, whose monumental building in Philadelphia towered over Independence Hall, began to collapse.  Its main publications were the Saturday Evening Post (with an enormous circulation in the early 20th century) and the Ladies’ Home Journal.

What Cicero was supposed to have said 2,000 years ago (“All I want is a book and a garden”) and a literate Englishman 200 years ago (“A study full of books is worth more than a purse full of money”) were statements from a long-faded past.  But it was not until the end of the 20th century that the disappearance of large numbers of readers finally led to drastic changes in the publishing of all kinds of reading matter, very much including books.  The massive influence of pictures and images had already preceded that (the movies).  But the death of the Age of Books, and of newspapers and magazines, was, indeed, television, followed by the Internet.  Already by the early 1990’s, many weeklies, magazines, journals, and quarterlies ceased to exist.  Entire large and traditional publishing houses went out of business.  Others cut their staffs to minimums.  Bookstores began to disappear.  In most schools there still was a minority of good students.  Even they read very little.

All of these transformations may suggest one momentous change: the declining effect of words.  “In the beginning was the Word”—and at the end of an age?  The incredible spread and availability of communications holds little promise, because communications are only instruments of transmissions.  Meanwhile, a great and deep consequence of the declining human respect for, and therefore the function of, words is the increasing evidence of the weakening of attention, seen in more and more spheres of life.

Still, history is unpredictable.  God writes straight with crooked lines.  And things are never quite as bad (or as good) as they seem.  Books will always exist.  Jefferson’s category of the educated minority, on whose existence the prospects of civilized mankind depend, is no longer enough.  To educated we need to add interested.  The very impulse of human attention depends on human interest, a quality often involved with humility, with our capacity of seeing beyond ourselves.  This awareness sometimes issues from reading.

In 1955, Harold Nicolson wrote, “I am confident that in coming generations the proportion of uninteresting people will be much diminished, whereas the proportion of interesting people will increase.”  In 1950, the great English bibliophile Holbrook Jackson (borrowing from Aldous Huxley) declared, “the proper study of mankind is books.”  I am uncertain about the first of these statements, but not about the second.  Now consider that Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga, two of the greatest historians of the Age of Books, wrote their most famous histories less for professional academic historians than for what in their lifetime could still be regarded as an educated and interested public.  And when on occasion someone asked Burckhardt how best to study history, the great man answered in three words: “Bisogna saper leggere.”

“You must know how to read.”


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