The morning after Thanksgiving I completed the manuscript of my last book, which will be published by Harvard University Press—a short book, and I still had some work on it. But I had a sense of accomplishment and a day of relief, whence I had a couple of stiff drinks in my cozy living room that afternoon. Through my window rays of a late sunshine stippled the still green-and-gold trees and shrubs of my garden.
No matter. Next day, my relief was gone. I know that so much of my world has vanished. The world of books.
I think that I was never—well, almost never—very anxious about the sales of my books. I wrote them, they were published, and that was—well, almost—that. But I am an historian; and history does not have a language of its own. It may—it can—be read by many kinds of people, among them some of my book-reading friends and neighbors and acquaintances—not only by professional historians, and not only by “intellectuals” (an odd category of men and women, less distinct now than they think they are). Of course, I am 89 years old, and many of my old friends are dead. But I think I know that very few of my neighbors and friends buy books, whether mine or not.
My neighbors mean much to me. I have honorary doctorates and awards from universities and states and foreign countries, but the one that means the most to me is one given me seven years ago, as the First Distinguished Citizen of Schuylkill Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I had served on its planning commission and where I have lived now for close to 60 years.
There is something similar in how public opinion is manufactured and how books are bought and read. Much of public opinion and of popular sentiment (the two are not the same, but they overlap) consist of choices presented by politicians and their managers. Much of the choice of books is the result of their publicity presented through printed notices, newspapers, magazines, reviews. But the primacy of the printed word is now largely gone. The primacy of pictorial “information,” of selected images and news, has replaced it. People are not aware of what this means. It is not that they are rejecting books. It means that the diminishing “information” about books results in the diminution of their availability. Around me and, alas, around the United States bookshops are closing. Here and there they no longer exist at all.
It is in the nature of most people to adjust themselves to circumstances, rather than to adjust circumstances to themselves. That kind of adjustment is not always conscious, but there it is. In the present trade of books it has certainly been conscious among most publishers. The decline of book-reading and the difficulties of marketing has led to the decrease of their former (even when necessarily partial) concern with the very values of the books they select to publish.
A respect for books still exists; and so remains, oddly, a respect for their authors. I am a beneficiary of that. Many men and women of my remnant neighbors, as well as workingmen and restaurant owners who know me, say of me, “He is a famous author.” Hah! Pish! I am not famous, and I am an historian and, consequently, an author, but this does not matter. What may matter is that there is a respectable but somehow antique sense about this. Faintly, it suggests someone like a landowner who still does his own farming or who is known for the beauties of the carnations in his garden, or a painter who makes a decent living by painting not abstractions but somewhat old-fashioned canvases. (Consider that old-fashioned was an often negative adjective among Americans 80 years ago, though that no longer is so.)
But no longer is the appropriate phrase now. The world of books still exists, with its effects here and there; but, really, it belongs to an age of no longer. It was part and parcel of an age that began about 600 years ago, and later called imprecisely the Modern Age, together with reading, with the so-called Enlightenment, with the “rise of the bourgeoisie,” with liberalism, with great cities, with the predominance of well-being, with money, with the retreat of barbarians, etc. (The word liberal was praiseworthy beyond politics, and in England it has been approbatory. For the last 60 years conservative, in American politics, largely means “antiliberal,” with some reasons. But are the majority of American “conservatives” book-readers? I am inclined to doubt that, as I am afraid that soon conservative and liberal may lose most of their meaning, as indeed right and left already have.) I wrote about such matters in a book entitled At the End of an Age; yet I was, and am, an historian and not a prophet. But now I add a tiny grain of speculation to all of this. There may be even more to this devolution than “decadence.” “In the beginning was the word,” not the picture. And now the end of the world of books, perhaps even of the end of reading, may have deep consequences in the relations of all kinds of people with one another: the fading of intimate mental relationships, of talk, of conversation, of intelligence—the meaning of a word with which I shall conclude the lamentations of this essay.
Throughout my life I was surrounded by books. My father had an impressive library. To write about how and when and what I started to read, the atmosphere and the presence and the scent of books, and the argle-bargle about them would be de trop. I have (or, at least, so I honestly think) not much nostalgia for old Budapest or Vienna or the Paris of Proust or smoky London or whatnot; I am not—well, not much—longing for the World of Yesterday; I am vexed by the World of Today. Still, what I had brought here with myself is—still—a goodly part of myself. I am surrounded by books, about 15,000 of them, in a splendidly high-ceilinged room in a handsome house with a garden and a family, a library that the sometimes thoughtless generosity of the United States of America allowed me to build, to have.
Over more than 60 years I have written about 30 books, printed by reputable publishers. Their subjects, rather than their style and philosophy, differ much, which is probably the reason why I must have no concern about their potential rediscoveries, about having no readers of them after I am gone. But I have been concerned about my library, of what would happen to it. It contains a few valuable collections, but otherwise it is an eclectic bibliothèque. About 15 years ago I was told by a dealer that no bookseller could take on such a library: But there was a way out, if a university library would accept and store my library as a gift. It would have to be appraised by an outside expert, and the books’ total value could then be a substantial tax deduction for my heirs. In 2000 a university with which I had been associated for many years accepted this offer. And now, the day after the Thanksgiving with which I started this melancholy essay, I find a letter from the librarian of this university in my mailbox. He had to cancel our agreement: 2012 was not 2000. There is now no place for my books in their library. The world of libraries has changed. They now have to discard books, more than they acquire new ones. Students come to the library less and less. They are digitizing (what an ugly word) most of their books. Disks are replacing them. So there.
So there with my papers, too. I do not mean the manuscripts of my books, but something else. I was (and still am) fond of correspondence. So I kept letters I received and sometimes solicited, and copies of some of my letters in folders entitled “Academic and Literary Correspondence” (to distinguish them from other personal folders) for more than 60 years, tied in rubber bands every six months or so, including some letters from a few famous men and women. About 30 years ago an amiable director of another major university visited me and said that their library would be pleased if I were to give them these valuable materials, in their still-accumulating folders. I was much complimented by this, and so I did. But that, too, has come to a sort of end. Of the very few correspondents whose letters I found exceptionally valuable, indeed precious, keeping them in separate folders, was George Kennan, who honored me with his friendship, and with whom I exchanged about 420 letters through 50 years, 1952 to 2003, of which more than half he wrote to me, many of them handwritten. A portion and excerpts of this correspondence were published by the University of Pennsylvania Press (of which a superb review was published in the New York Review of Books, entitled “Wise Men Against the Grain”). Kennan’s family told me that this correspondence remains mine, and I could do with it what I will. No university library has been willing to buy it.
Such have been evidences of the end of a world of my published books, my manuscripts, my library, my letters and correspondences. They will now be dispersed, scattered, unknown, and unretrievable, lost in the wind. (John Keats, perhaps the finest English writer of letters, wrote a “dissertation on letter-writing” a little less than 200 years ago.) As for correspondence, I will no longer order personal stationery, since I would be obliged to have printed on the top of it at least five items: my mailing address, my telephone number, my cellphone number, my fax number, and my e-mail address (which I am loath to use). So much for the simplification of communications.
I thought of these matters without, at least so I think, much self-pity, but on a dark early December afternoon, I knew that I was now living not at but beyond the end of a great age. I had my first stiff drink and would have had a second, which does me some good momentarily but also tends me to stumble, losing my balance. This is not an old-wives’ tale—only the tale of an old man. At nights last week I had reread The Old Wives’ Tale, which is Arnold Bennett’s only very good book, not good nutrition for my mind now, full of scenes of rain as his pages are. In accord with his somber book, now I am inclined to write, “All day it rained.”
But it didn’t.
I shall write no more books—not because of despair but because of my age. (I travel hardly at all, read less, search for words and names, etc.) But a week after Thanksgiving an extraordinary book was published—extraordinary, because of the riches of its contents and because of its shining style. Its title, Inventing Wine, is somewhat deceiving, because it is more than that: a superb and concise history of wine-growing, -storing, -selling, -tasting—a history of wine. This morning I am told that it is selling extraordinarily well, which it deserves. It was written—it is written—by my son, Paul.
Last week I went to the funeral of a friend. Ramsay was a quiet, humble, modest man—qualities more profound than manners. (Goethe was right: There are no manners which do not have something of a moral foundation.) Ramsay was a veterinary doctor, a near-neighbor of mine. For many years we served together in the government of our township. About 20 years ago he and his family moved away, further west, beyond suburbanization. Now my daughter drove me to his memorial service. I thought that there would not be many people beyond his family whom I wanted to see and talk with; but as we approached their house I was stunned to see hundreds of cars lined up in a field beneath it. Then there must have been at least 400 people around and under a tent and, after the service, in the house. It was a bright December morning. Two days before we had three inches of snow, but here, less than 30 miles to the west, there was none. I kept looking out from the tent. There was a dun brown breast of a large hillside beyond, and closer what I could see of the fields and fences where he kept horses. Ramsay was one of the gentlest men I have ever known. Now all of these men and women had come to remember him. Most of them must have been his neighbors of his last 20 years. They must have come to pay respect to his qualities. What I saw was a panorama of American decency. I only knew a few of them; but I knew. Or, as Pascal said, we understand more than what we know.
Well, “intelligence” means more than—and perhaps not at all—the ability to read. It has nothing to do with “inter-legere.” Look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. It was, and still is, the faculty of understanding.
So, to wit La Rochefoucauld: “Things are never as bad—or as good—as they seem.”