A decade or more ago, I developed some idle curiosity about a bit of early American colonial history and I took myself down to the local library to do some casual reading that only barely would qualify for the word “research.” I looked up in the electronic catalogue some titles on the subject and, as I had done since high school, jotted down the call numbers and went to the appropriate stacks. I’ve never like closed stack libraries because accident has been as important as intent in the self-administered portion of my education. I don’t look for a specific book so much as I look for a region. The books I once looked up in card catalogues, and now look up in electronic records, are used more as lodestones to guide me in a general direction than of ends in themselves. Armed with a call number, I guided myself to the region where a certain category of information can be found and I examine many books in that locale, not simply the ones whose addresses I know.
Thus it was that I picked up a general book of American history off the shelf of a small public library in a small town, the sort of place no less remarkable for its commonness. The blue cloth binding, faded in places, the size, the shape, the gilt lettering, all gave the immediate impression of an older book. However, the sharpness of the corners and the whiteness of the pages indicated that it had rarely been read. I sat down in a carrel with it. I turned to the title page to look for a date. The copyright was accompanied by a date in the early years of this century. It was published, like most American books of that era, like most American books I have ever read, in New York.
I read the introduction. In the sonorous, authoritative tones that history no longer uses, the introduction gave a general outline of the past. It spoke of Progress with an antiquated admiration and archaic confidence. It did not so much as explained to the reader as inform him of how civilization had risen up from “oriental despotism” to the enlightened world we have today.
Incongruously, I was put in mind of the first page of Harvey Kurtzman’s The Jungle Book, which mocks exactly this ideal of progress. “Up from the apes – and right back down again.” In the copy I own, which is a reprint published by Kitchen Sink Press in the eighties or nineties, there is an introduction by Art Spiegleman. In it, he quotes a conservative observer of society whom he saw interviewed and whose name I forget. The conservative spoke of how everything had gone wrong with society starting in the sixties because kids had been taught to make fun of society. The interviewer asked if he mean things like Mad magazine, co-founded by Kurtzman. The conservative responded, “That’s exactly what I mean.”
However it was clear in the introduction that the author of the history book, a man with faith in progress, was no conservative. Neither, one would guess, was Kurtzman. Yet they held nearly diametrically opposed views. There are days that I wonder what opinions we hold with confidence today will seem naive and outmoded tomorrow.