January 13, 2021

THE SPURNING OF OLD BOOKS: The Devaluation of the Past Threatens Higher Ed.

Jacobs tells of a university student who, disgusted by Edith Wharton’s anti-Semitism, threw his volume of The House of Mirth in the trash, saying “I don’t want anyone like that in my house.” Despite the fact that Wharton’s novel has survived the decades, she was summarily dismissed. This student is representative of a growing cohort for whom “stood the test of time” is a phrase more likely to arouse suspicion than good will or respect.

At the other end of the intellectual maturity spectrum lies Frederick Douglass, whose moral depth and acumen allowed him to study the work of the Founding Fathers and develop a dual framework. Jacobs cites Douglass’s famous 1852 Fourth of July speech in which he simultaneously lauds and denounces the country built upon the Founding Fathers’ Enlightenment precepts.

While Jacobs admires Douglass’s qualities of mind, it seems unlikely that Edith Wharton’s zealous detractor would be capable of entertaining such nuance, let alone practicing it. Protesters tore down a statue of Douglass this summer.

Why? What is going on in the minds of supposedly educated people in 2020 that makes them believe that reading the wrong sort of thing literally harms them?

Jacobs attributes this “sense of defilement” by old books to information overload and “social acceleration.” The rush of contemporary life, he argues, has forced moderns to perform “informational triage” simply to make their lives manageable. Thus, people play safe by eschewing the old in favor of the familiar.

This analysis is not wrong, but it does not come to grips with key factors. True: Out of necessity, we turn away from much information, but the question as to what we choose to set aside (or choose never to pick up) and why we make those particular choices is left hanging. Indeed, how does “informational triage” account for the hypersensitivity and overreaction exemplified by throwing a book in the trash? Is the impulse to bin so very far away from the impulse to burn?

Setting aside the more mundane reasons that people don’t read old books, moralistic stances have lately risen to the top, and these stances are mostly taken by the political left.

Within a generation, the torch for literal-mindedness, pinched morality, and scolding righteousness has passed from a relatively small group of people on the marginal right to a growing number of people on the trendsetting left. The trend even reaches into popular culture. Some Evangelicals sought to ban Harry Potter in the 90s, but today, J.K. Rowling’s comments on the transgendered and women’s rights have given the Potter industry a black mark. Now, it’s progressives who call for banning, boycotting, and shunning her.

To acknowledge the obvious, books have long frightened and disgusted some conservatives as well as progressives, but some differences are noteworthy. Whereas conservative readers are more likely to resist modern content, progressives are more likely to be outraged by the past. Conservative readers fear the influence of new ideas not in keeping with their established beliefs or traditional value systems. Progressive readers feel morally superior to their predecessors and thus fear contamination by association with them.

C.S. Lewis, call your office:

Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery.” It is defined as the belief that “the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present, simply by virtue of its temporal priority or the belief that since civilization has advanced in certain areas, people of earlier time periods were less intelligent.” If we add, “and therefore wrong and also racist” to this definition, we would have a perfect definition of today’s SJWs.

Historian Larry Taunton defines it as “imposing the mores of our own time on those who lived in another.”

And Ray Bradbury, too. As Bradbury wrote in the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.”

Speaking of which: Antifa Forces Portland Book Store to Stop Selling Andy Ngo’s Book About Antifa.

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