It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them, and they prefer to ramble in the country and perish of ennui, to the degradation of such charities and such ambitions as the city can propose to them. They are striking work, and crying out for somewhat worthy to do! . . .
Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial,—they are not stockish or brute,—but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. . . .
These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no compliment, no smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one compliment, of insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely exact, and if they only stand fast in this watchtower, and persist in demanding unto the end, and without end, then are they terrible friends, whereof poet and priest cannot choose but stand in awe; and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man.
From “The Transcendentalist, a Lecture Read at the Masonic Temple, Boston, January, 1842.”
In Silicon Valley Paris, the software coder Mark Zuckerberg the gossip reporter George Flack pitches his idea for a new kind of social-networking site society newspaper, where the targets will volunteer information about themselves instead of having it extracted from them by reporters, to a venture capitalist nubile young heiress:
There are ten thousand things to do that haven't been done, and I am going to do them. The society news of every quarter of the globe, furnished by the prominent members themselves (oh, they can be fixed—you'll see!) from day to day and from hour to hour and served up at every breakfast-table in the United States—that's what the American people want and that's what the American people are going to have. I wouldn't say it to every one, but I don't mind telling you, that I consider I have about as fine a sense as any one of what's going to be required in future over there. I'm going for the secrets, the chronique intime, as they say here; what the people want is just what isn't told, and I'm going to tell it. Oh, they're bound to have the plums! That's about played out, any way, the idea of sticking up a sign of "private" and thinking you can keep the place to yourself. You can't do it—you can't keep out the light of the Press. Now what I am going to do is to set up the biggest lamp yet made and to make it shine all over the place. We'll see who's private then! I'll make them crowd in themselves with the information, and as I tell you, Miss Francie, it's a job in which you can give me a lovely push.
Henry James, The Reverberator, 1888.
While rummaging through my shelves, I came across a poem from the 1950s that seems strangely apropos to current debates about the future of the book, or its possible lack of one: “To Posterity,” by Louis MacNeice:
When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?
I now also see, thanks to the online equivalent of rummaging, that MacNeice’s letters will be published in a couple of weeks.
I found this bookplate, unglued but still tucked into the front endpapers, in a history that I spent today reading. The book, which I bought used last week, was published in the 1930s; the Internet tells me that Edwin B. Coddington, its sometime owner, was the longtime chair of Lafayette College’s history department and wrote the definitive history of the Battle of Gettysburg, published in 1968, some time after his death. I like the way the bookplate evokes the idea of American history. I’ve been using it as a bookmark, and I must have looked at it half a dozen times before I had a Sesame Street moment and realized that the Indian and the airplane don’t belong in the same picture.
The Onion this week reprints its issue of 6 October 1783, including such articles as “Thousands More Teeth Lost,” “Rural Quaker Scandalized by Intricate Furniture Pattern,” “Citizens Now Free to Practise Any Form of Protestantism They Want,” and “Mule-Deaths of Late.” If, like me, you are the sort who laughs at such things as the Donald Barthelme story “An Hesitation on the Bank of the Delaware,” in which a soldier warns George Washington, “But, General, unless we launch the boats pretty shortly, the attack will lose the element of furprife,” you will probably appreciate the humor.