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In Praise of Old Books

Mises Daily: Thursday, July 21, 2011 by

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I recently purchased the new model of Barnes and Noble's Nook eReader. (I reviewed the older Nook here and here.) It is a very new gadget, but it is now filled, almost exclusively, with very old books.

A recent article in the New York Times argued that the tea-party movement is, to some extent, inspired by "long-ago texts" and "long-dormant ideas." To the extent that this is true, it is likely only true of whatever thread of classical liberalism still exists in the movement. I doubt Mark Levin–listening tea partiers are poring thoughtfully over the original sources of their neoconservative doctrines (the writings of Bill Buckley and the like). And anyway, neoconservatism has most certainly not been "long-dormant."

There has never been a better time to be a student of scholarship in the long-lived liberal tradition. Most of the modern works written by Mises Institute scholars are available online for free. And both the Mises Institute and the Liberty Fund have been building vast digital libraries, breathing new life into old and formerly obscure classics.

BK Marcus and his team have been doing heroic work digitizing the works of the "Old Right" (Garett, Nock, Hazlitt, Rothbard, et al.), Mises and the early Misesians (Haberler, Hayek, Robbins, Machlup, et al.), early Austrians (Menger, Bohm-Bawerk, Fetter, et al.), quasi Austrians and other modern subjectivists (Wicksteed, Wicksell, Clark, et al.), "continental tradition" pre-Austrians (Cantillon, Turgot, Say, de Tracy, Bastiat, et al.), and more. Every day on Mises.org a classic text is converted into the ePub format, which is ideal for ebook readers. And, as of recently, the literature section of Mises.org is much easier to navigate now that it has alphabet links at the top of its Authors page. See also Jeffrey Tucker's article "Dead Texts Take Flight."

The Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty has an outstanding collection of classics, particularly in the British liberal tradition, including Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (Ferguson, Hume, Smith, et al.), Classical School economists (Ricardo, Senior, et al.), English jurists (Blackstone, Coke, Maine, et al.), and English political thinkers (Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Cobden, Trenchard, et al.). A lot of these British writers have been out of favor among Rothbardians, but there is much learning and stimulation to be had from these titanic thinkers of past ages.

The Online Library of Liberty also has an extensive collection of Western classics in general. On their digital shelves you can find literature that, once upon a time, every educated man was intimately familiar with: Homer, Aeschylus, Aristotle, Virgil, Horace, Tacitus, Cicero, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Dante, Petrarch, Erasmus, Spinoza, Donne, Bacon, Milton, Pope, et al. Works such as these would seem to have little to do with liberalism per se. Yet this kind of development is also exciting for the liberal tradition. It means there is hope for the modern mind.

You see, the modern mind has been desiccated and atrophied by the state. State-dominated schooling is so inept that most boys and girls acquire a lifelong outright aversion to reading, such that they don't read any books outside of school. And nearly all who do read, don't read books of substance.

Not only reading enthusiasm, but reading comprehension has plummeted as well. Herodotus and Livy used to be schoolboy reading. Yet now even many university students would have trouble parsing the language of those clear, direct writers, much less more challenging fare like Thucydides and Polybius.

We are now living in something of an artificial dark age. The "barbarians" responsible for this dark age did not torch our libraries. Instead, they torched our minds and our curiosity, starting with the progressive educational revolution, which began in the 19th century and culminated in the early 20th century.

For the vanishingly few who do read books that treat of important ideas, the situation is not much better (perhaps worse), because most of these books are trash, both in terms of style and content. This too is because of state-dominated schooling. As they say — garbage in, garbage out.

There has been a marked degradation in all forms of literary output during the 20th and 21st centuries. You can see it in post-World War I writing, and it gets much worse post–World War II. Take letter-writing for example. Watch Ken Burns's Civil War documentary, and pay close attention to the letters written by soldiers. The writing of a non-college-educated Civil War infantry grunt had more grace and intelligence than you'll find in just about anything written by a university graduate these days.

Textbooks, encyclopedias, journalism, popular scholarship, academic scholarship, plays, novels, memoirs, and travel writing have all suffered. Most any present-day writer betrays an unseasoned and comparatively unlettered mind. And most writing is permeated with the mind-set of a social-democracy boot camp at best — and a cultural-Marxism boot camp at worst. And then there is the minority of literature permeated by modern conservatism, which is of still poorer quality.

But now it is possible to bypass the dross that is modern letters. It is possible to educate our homeschooled children (and to reeducate ourselves) using old books, available for free online at sites like the ones discussed above, as well as eBooks@Adelaide, Project Gutenberg, and Archive.org. Anything written by someone educated before 1914 is to be preferred.

Instead of reading the latest novel skewering the alleged hypocrisy and emptiness of the bourgeois workplace and suburban home, you can read one of the masterpieces of 19th century French fiction. Instead of learning about the history of England from wooly old baby-boomer dons like Simon Schama, you can go straight to Hume and Macauley. Instead of studying identity and alienation in ancient Greece and Rome, you can go straight to Gibbon, Grote, and Mommsen. Instead of reading something dry and uninspired like Nicolas Grimal's History of Ancient Egypt, you can read the urbane and delightful prose of Rawlinson. And instead of reading modern reference works shot through with political correctness, you can read the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica (as a website or an eBook). You can stock a Kindle, Nook, or Sony Reader with thousands and thousands of pages of great, old stuff. Yes, some of the information in such old works will be obsolete. But such instances are much fewer, and easier to correct with supplementary resources, than are all the instances of poor reasoning, shallow insight, wretched style, and politically correct bias that you have to contend with in modern writing.

Old books plus new technology can make modern-day liberalism the most refreshing and interesting movement around, giving the thoughtful young person a welcome alternative to the smug, hidebound intellectualism of the Left and the proud anti-intellectualism of the Right.