George Orwell wrote the script and we strive to implement it. With two wars winding down and the Arab Spring confusing everything, with bin Laden dropped into the sea and the successive killings of an endless series of secondary leaders grimly celebrated (but their names are all the same, it seems, and until they die we’ve never heard of them) it is really time now to shift attention to the next new enemy. The process is under way. A succession of articles and programs on TV are teaching us to fear the Yellow Peril once again.
That reminded me of an old friend, Lin Yutang, a venerable publisher, The Modern Library, and of the 1950s in America, which was a much more quiet time. These things are subjective. The word suggests something less than or inferior to objective—but personal experience is sovereign, of course, whereas the objective is just statistics. The fifties appear as turbulent as the present when listing world events (Korea, Cuban revolution), cultural explosions (Elvis), political witch hunts (McCarthy), or global competition (Sputnik). But the feel of life was altogether different. It was a much more quiet time because the public media had not yet come of age, the Information Age still in the womb, and even the Internet’s seed, ARPANET, still just shy of a decade away.
At the same time the means I needed to orient myself were wonderfully organized. I turned 14 midway through 1950. Books were becoming quite affordable; in Europe we had Rororo, Germany’s first pocketbook publisher—brimming with classics. And arriving in the United States, everywhere we lived—large public libraries. We used to take the streetcar downtown to visit the big downtown library in family expeditions: we owned no car. Here we also rapidly discovered a publisher with a fitting name: The Modern Library. It published wonderful and very affordable hardbound classic and modern works of value. They formed the foundations of our own private family library. And it was between the covers of one of these books that I came across The Wisdom of China and India, by Lin Yutang.
We had time in the 1950s. Between the green covers of that book, at 16-17 years of age, I read the basic scriptures of Buddhism, Laotse on the Tao, the Shu Ching, the Chinese Book of History, and much, much else. The Book of History was fascinating. The mandate of heaven, the virtue of the ruler—quite different from the concepts of governance that I was getting elsewhere. My world expanded—but in quite a different way than it expands now, for the young, by means of instant access using the web. It also led to a life-long interest in China and other cultures. Such experiences acted to inoculate me against the plague of modern times, which is information overload. Does it really enlarge my understanding to see bloody faces in Tahrir Square in Cairo or red pepper-spray in Oakland in real time?
In the more quiet times of the 1950s (and we were already, then, in the midst of the great decadence, but still) there was less information but what there was came in wonderfully concentrated, structured, and thoughtfully presented forms, encompassing the most ancient as well as current times, thanks to the creative labors of such as Lin Yutang and publishers such as The Modern Library.
But would I want to go back to such times? Give up all this instant access? My answer is: Why not? Such services as the Internet are only really useful to people who already know something—and can therefore sort the steel from the dross.