This essay is to suggest that a personal electronic library offers long-lasting easy access to a fragile and fungible past found in the work of dead authors. It can provide perspective to prominent current literature, art, and politics, that devoted, understandably but myopically, to the real life world of now. Over time an accessible, cumulative, annoted, electronic library of the dead becomes progressively more useful. It is a treasure which increases in value through withdrawals.
Language is the essence of being human, distinguishing us from all other life we know. In the beginning words were mainly propagated through sound waves. The earth’s atmosphere and surrounding space is, however, an ocean of electromagnetic energy whose spectrum was first used for visual signals to convey more complex ideas than mere words. Like
‘Get more wood’; and ‘Empty the trash'(or the dog.)
But that was only the beginning. Tens of thousands of years later our tiny human colony mines the universe for information, and sends out our own little electromagnetic packets of words and images. We spy on the present and past of the universe; and, inevitably, on one another. Yet we tend to lose contact with our human past. That process of loss is almost inevitable for two reasons:
First, because language is alive; it constantly changes, loses or changes meaning, ages and dies of old age. The more remote a language the more unintelligible.
Second, the past, both personal and cultural, is necessarily imperfectly and incompletely recorded; it is selected from a universe of events,or, ‘facts’. The speaker, the author, even with the best of intentions, condenses, edits, and therefore rewrites. Example: A speaker at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine graduation in 1954, said:
‘We have taught you what we believe is fully correct. Yet much more than half is erroneous. That is the only fact I can leave you with today.’ ( I paraphrase, unsure he included the last sentence. But in rewriting the neural circuits in my own memory’s mind, it is exactly what he said; and besides, it seems the truth.) I mention this anecdote to point that: What is most significant in Reading the Dead is to find, not fact, but insight into the human condition as seen by the writer or speaker. A fact is that Shakespeare was a devoted plagiarist; many of his themes, like entire sections of Coriolanus were not original. Nonetheless, the language-rich depiction of the human condition is incomparably all his own. Therefore despite the decay of language and writing over time, the dead provide voluminous and accessible information on enduring human qualities.
My home is infested with books; sometimes I pick out a book, forgetting I had read it long ago. But to read again is enlightening because often the reader has new eyes and the old book is reborn rewritten, because when we re-read, as we now do in an e.era, we re-write mentally he. The largest works I had read when young were Will and Ariel Durant’s 12 volume The Story of History. Those went with me back and forth across the Pacific on the USS Orca, AVP-49, a Seaplane Tender; it was the only time in my life, until retirement, when I did almost nothing except read. How busy can one be caring for 200 bored allegedly healthy men at sea, or in places like Hong Kong, or Yokosuka?
I devoured the Durant’s Histories, unable to imagine how,in mid 20th century, they could collect, ante, keep track of, and put together this monumental work. Edward Gibbon, whose life work was one book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, at least, was single, wealthy, and hired a raft of helpers. I also took to sea Mao’s quotations in The Little Red Book, After all, I was drafted because of his designs on Quemoy and Matsu, two little islands off Taiwan that could be used for an invasion. Though I’ve forgotten most of the Durant’s histories, the my electronic library of dead writers, is available on demand; so I have the Histories back again- and they are searchable!
While I try to read new authors, I believe it wise to wait to see if their voice is still strong after a few years. Further, I find Reading the Dead is, page for page, hour for hour, more rewarding. A writer who has survived the test of time has something to say that I can hear from no one else. Some writers are both dead and dense. Edward Gibbon comes to mind. But after a short while his style becomes easier to follow; and every word is worth savoring, especially in view of our own empire’s involvement with the Mid East. On the other hand, some works are quintessential, but can, at times, be so repetitive that the reader can scan whenever iterated boilerplate in for example, The Bible,Old Testament and the Qur’an. Others are beautifully written, like the unabridged 5000 pages of Les Miserables, but contain long stretches that are so doggedly and voluminously descriptive that if, for example, one isn’t really interested in 100 pungent pages on the Paris sewers, scanning serves well. Last, some, like Aristotle, speak in so remote a tongue, so changed by multiple translations, that I often find them unintelligible.
Reading the Dead is nearly free to anyone in the world with e.access and seems is especially rewarding in the elderly who have loosed the bonds of ambition, and obligation, and ignore the mandates of Nietzsche’s Dragon.* I now read without purpose or direction, wrapped in the arms of serendipity. The following list selected at random from the Reading The Dead (English**) section of my electronically stored literature. It is not set forth as recommended reading, but as merely an example of feral, or free range Reading the Dead..
Treatises on Friendship by Marcus Tullius Cicero circa 45 BC
The Spectator by Steele and Addison London 1711
On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
Three Translations of the Koran
Excursions, Henry David Thoreau
Up From Slavery, Booker T Washington
The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbons
The Arabian Nights, anon
The Celebates, Honore de Balzac
An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill, W.F. Cody
The 42nd Parallel, John Dos Passos
The Aeneid, Virgil
Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
Prometheus Unbound, Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Antichrist, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill
The Land of Little Rain, Mary Hunter Austin
Edgar Allen Poe, complete works ***
The Collected Stories of Arthur Clarke
The Bible, Old and New Testaments, King James Version
The Social Cancer, Jose Rizal
Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
Second Treatise of Government, John Locke
Orley Farm, Anthony Trollope
Plays of Anton Chekhov
Orlando Furioso, Ludovico Arisosto
Memorial Address on the death of Lincoln, George Bancroft
History of The Expedition of William and Clark (pub posthumously)
In the Amazon Jungle, Algot Lange
Inca Land, Highram Bingham
Gargantua and Pantagruel, Franciois Rabelais
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, Edwin A. Abbot
The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot
Querist, George Berkeley
Querist, George Berkeley
The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carrol
The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio
Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau
Common Sense, Thomas Paine
The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Concerning Christian Liberty, Martin Luther
Chrome Yellow, Aldous Huxley
Dean Spanley, Lord Dunsany
Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Getting Married, George Bernard Shaw
Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore
The Life of Cesare Borgia, Rafael Sabatini
A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift
On the Decay of the Art of Lying, Mark Twain
Paradise Lost, John Milton
Utopia, Thomas Moore
The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
My Bondage and My Freedom,Frederick Douglas
The Kamasutra, Vatsayana
* Nietzsche suggested life’s goal is to slay the dragon whose every scale is engraved with “Thou Shalt”; or “Shalt Not”, I don’t remember, but they are one and the same!
** English translations. Does not include Spanish or Brazilian Portuguese editions.
*** Poe and Arthur C. Clarke, like some other famous authors, wrote some dismal stuff that can be abandoned easily. But that in itself is worth remembering.