Mar 10, 2014
Reading in the New Millennium: Forward to the Past?
Posted on Jan 3, 2012
By Juan Cole
I have been rereading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s two-volume “Essays” on my iPad via Google Books. His remarks at the opening of the piece on “Politics” are justly renowned but always worth considering again:
“In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better. Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions, rooted like oak-trees to the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it. … ”
This passage could not be more urgent and relevant in this election season. It should be repeatedly quoted to those young conservatives who are always throwing Ronald Reagan in our faces as if he set immutable, or necessarily wise, precedents. It is also worth contemplating by any who think that the Occupy Wall Street movement is on a fool’s errand in seeking to compel the rotten oak trees of privilege and impunity to gyrate around a demand for justice and a rule of law.
Could I have found the essay at my local bookstore? I am no longer sure. I could have rooted around in used bookstores. Of course, it is likely in my public library, and, being at a university with a research library, I could have always gotten hold of it. Those are not advantages everyone has. In any case, the ease of simply downloading it cannot be beaten.
The combination of tablet book readers and a massive free library of out-of-copyright Google Books raises an interesting possibility. Will there be a revival of interest, among bookworms at least, in pre-20th century authors because of their new accessibility and the low cost of entry? How many still read Emerson beyond the essay on “Self-Reliance” they are assigned in school? But in many ways he is the foundational American thinker, and it can be only a good thing for millions to have him at their fingertips.
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