Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I'd Like To Be a Serious Thinker But I Can't Afford It

As a business-book writer and editor, and, I like to think, a reasonably literate person, I was intrigued by the topic of this New York Times article by publisher Harriet Rubin about the libraries of CEOs. And early in the article, I liked Rubin's comment, "Serious leaders who are serious readers build personal libraries dedicated to how to think, not how to compete." I've known some CEOs like that, and they are interesting people to meet and talk with.

Unfortunately, Rubin followed up with this sentence: "Ken Lopez, a bookseller in Hadley, Mass., says it is impossible to put together a serious library on almost any subject for less than several hundred thousand dollars."

Wha--? Not only does this make no sense whatever, but it is totally contradictory to the actual concept of literacy in the post-Gutenberg era. The beauty of books is that they are mass produced. What's more, the greatest works of literature--the classics of centuries past--are mostly available in multiple cheap editions. So anyone who is actually serious about learning "how to think" can assemble a collection of literally priceless instruction for a few hundred dollars, simply by scouring used book stores for old paperback copies of Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Mill, The Federalist Papers, Darwin, etc. etc.

Of course, as I read on, it became clear that what Rubin was writing about was not what one might call "working libraries" amassed by people who actually read and think but rather collections of rare books assembled for their investment value--which explains the remark about having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the stuff. Rubin goes on to illustrate:
Students of power should take note that C.E.O.'s are starting to collect books on climate change and global warming, not Al Gore's tomes but books from the 15th century about the weather, Egyptian droughts, even replicas of Sumerian tablets recording extraordinary changes in climate, according to John Windle, the owner of John Windle Antiquarian Booksellers in San Francisco.

Darwin's "Origin of Species" was priced at a few thousand dollars in the 1950s. "Then DNA became the scientific rage," said Mr. Windle. "Now copies are selling for $250,000. But the desire to own a piece of Darwin's mind is coming to an end. I have a customer who collects diaries of people of no importance at all. The entries say, 'It was 63 degrees and raining this morning.' Once the big boys amass libraries of weather patterns, everyone will want these works."
Well, it's certainly good to know that America's most powerful business leaders are finally grappling with global warming as a serious intellectual issue! And I'm sure those fifteenth-century weather treatises and Sumerian tablets shed a lot of light on the kind of carbon-emissions policies corporations ought to be developing. Having your consultant buy a medieval manuscript at Sotheby's is so much more practical and useful than reading one of those icky "tomes" by Al Gore, which any doofus can pick up in a bookstore for twenty bucks!

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with CEOs or other wealthy people collecting rare books. It's just as harmless as collecting duck decoys, Amish quilts, Impressionist paintings, or Greek vases. But it's mere vanity to dress the habit up in pretentious intellectual garb as if it reflects some sort of profundity, and this unfortunate article is another sad example of the Times's penchant for devoting its pages to stroking the egos of the rich and powerful.

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