Reading in the New Millennium: Cole at Truthdig

My essay, “Reading in the New Millennium: Forward to the Past?” is out at Truthdig.


“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 . . .

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? …”

Read the whole thing.

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7 Responses

  1. I do think that one could expect from every American with a minimal education to actually read something from Emerson or W. James without it being free (that magic word). Or what is the state of education in the USA these days?

  2. “In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal…” One of the best ways to grasp that the state is only one possible form of sociopolitical org. among others is to read about stateless societies, ie. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer. Can usually be found at good used book stores in University towns!

    • And then there are the Tiv of what we call Nigeria. Quick glimpse: link to . Yep, all is mutable, over time and with enough pressure or incentive or violence or, in the case of the Nacerima, generations of dumb-frakkin’ ignorance and inattention and consumption… link to

      Is your post an invitation to get sucked into that other kind of Paulism, “RonRandial,” as opposed to the “Saint” flavor? Just asking.

      • No Paulism of any flavor for me; social democrat not libertarian. But I think that the political imagination in the US needs expanding. We need new ways to think “state.”

        • Sure seems to me that there’s a lot of very smart and well-funded people doing exactly that. Homeland Security, infinite extensions of FIS and now the NDAA, and similar “1984” dissections of those “liberal” virtues. I do so wish it were possible to go against the flow and explore some kind of “New Federalism” or other ways of directing the inevitable accumulation of power into more humane channels. Sure does not seem, to me at least, that squishy “secular humanism” has a prayer of overcoming or engulfing the beetle-browed, scowling, happily violent critters that populate what ought to be called the “Wrong” part of the political color wheel.

          But keep working at it. Maybe a critical mass of Occupation might develop, and stay ahead of the tools of repression and enslavement.

          One version of the Pandora myth (not the jewelry fad) has it that the last plague on humanity to escape that mortal coffer was “Hope…”

  3. “The combination of tablet book readers and a massive free library…”

    Ya think? On my nook now (among others):

    Coriolanus, Marcus Aurelius, “Swann’s Way”, “The Possessed”, Aeschylus, Bukharin, Bernays…

    The Gutenberg Project is my free candy store. Awesome.

    OK, plus a lot of embarrassing crap from B&N. Hey, it came with a gift card!

  4. The candy store is awesome—now. But I wonder what will happen in 20 or 30 years when we’ve all moved on to ebooks housed in the Cloud and our government—let’s contemplate the worst case (a President Santorum, for example, invoking the PATRIOT Act)—decides to deprive its citizens us of access to them. We’d have a revolution? Hardly. We are already so effectively cowed that criminal bankers can go on perpetrating their frauds without masses of people in the streets (OWS is a good start but unlikely to last). It’s important to remember that access to all these ebooks will be managed by corporations that have no fundamental interest in the free exchange of ideas—maybe even less interest than the government does. Personally, I prefer private control of private libraries, and hope the day never comes when we have no access to knowledge, only access to access.

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