I have a thing for plus-size books. You know the ones that refuse to be just another fling – a one-night stand – just a stop on the way to some imagined somewhere. They are the destination. Large books are not for the trifling or immature. They won’t be rushed. A big book requires real romancing on the way to commitment. You have to live with them for awhile before they get interesting. Sure you think about getting out all the time — maybe an easier book — but the difficult ones seem to be all more intriguing. And when it’s over and you part ways, you never really forget how it was.
I love big history; not the thin-lipped perspectivalism that has rendered all ideologies as relatively equal. No, I mean the soaring telescopic view from outer space looking back and forth across eternity — connecting the dots to help us make sense of why we are they way we are. These encyclopedic works are penned by Promethean Ivy League history professors in full-on tweed complete with pimp my smug bowtie – Will Durant’s eleven-volume “The Story of Civilization,” Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn to Decadence” and Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon” all come to mind. Any snarky critic that has ever felt that their people, cause or beliefs were slighted by history has taken a shot at these clever elitists perhaps because their enormous books make such any easy target.
For me, the greatest of this ilk was Daniel Boorstin. He studied or taught at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge and Chicago; served as director of the National Museum of History and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution; was the Librarian of Congress; wrote 20 books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Americans” and even anticipated complex social theories like pseudo-events decades before the French poststructuralist philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard. Boorstin was an intellectual juggernaut who wrote equally gargantuan books.
In 1983, he published “The Discoverers,” the first volume of what would become a three-volume series that included “The Creators” and “The Seekers.” At more than 750 pages of dense prose, I could barely carry the book around the University of Wisconsin campus and could never really justify my reading it when my doctoral course work was beyond demanding. Boorstin challenged my long-held assumptions about the foundations of the world – time, space, matter, and energy — all I had taken to be the clock workings of the universe.
It started with a simple provocation. Why did Man create chronological time? Nature is cyclical — the seasons, new moons and the daily rhythm of the tides. This worked well in agrarian societies and is still with us in our liturgical calendar. The answer was simple and elegant: to free us from nature, to recreate our world, to innovate.
Question upon question he systematically deconstructed the apparatus that moves our provincial thoughts. Why did science flourish in the West when its origins were in the East? Why after a millennium of consternation did the whole of the world get charted in a decade by a small European country? Why are there seven days in a week? The Romans and Chinese didn’t use a seven-day calendar and they invented the geometry and calculus we still use today to build their magnificent civilizations. By looking at the past, “The Discoverers” plotted the trajectory to future.
“The Discoverers” demonstrates how progress ambles up the crooked road of history to where we live now. Man may be the measure of all things, but rules and rulers used to gauge the distance from here to there are ever-changing. The animal that knows he knows lives at the edge of science and spirituality — a dynamic state of ambiguity — where he is both of the world and beyond it. The old ways and simple rules no longer apply. Think of advances on our doorstep today, such as indiscriminate cloning, the destruction of the world habitat by nation states or the possibility of living forever via mind uploading, and you begin to see his point. Change the underlying meaning of ways and things, and verities become balderdash or even worse nonsensical. Boorstin’s point is that it’s all happened before and will all happen again. Stability across time is la grande illusion.
A sign of a great book is one that you read when you are exhausted because it brings fresh energy. Daniel Boorstin was the Tolstoy of non-fiction — too many characters and subplots — but incessantly lively. Perhaps there is no longer room in our vertical world for a wider horizontal tome — OMG! No more “War and Peace,” “Les Misérables“ or “Moby Dick.” OK, we could probably do without “Moby Dick” —“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.”
“The Discoverers” turned my head and my career in a new direction. It showed me how innovation emerges in the über-complex systems and organizations that wrap us up in what we take to be modernity. It also turned me on to big books. Maybe it’s just a fetish like Jimmy Choo shoes or a Jimmy Buffett drinking ditty. Who really knows why something catches our fancy. We just discover that it does.