Reading the Dead

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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

Histories, Herodotus

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

Ethics, Aristotle

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.


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