Books, metaphors, and the march of history

Today my sister sent me a link to the transcript of a very interesting speech, given in 1872 upon the occasion of the centennial of the New York Library Society. Of course, one reason I found it very interesting is the possibility that the speaker was one of our ancestors. The name is the same as that of our great-great-grandfather (Thomas Ward), who was a printer and would certainly have had an interest in the library, and we do have ancestors from the New York area. But even aside from that possible connection, I enjoyed the speech for its own merits.

Margaret had mentioned Ward’s comments about the importance of books, and how loving books seems to “be in our DNA.” I certainly liked Ward’s descriptions of books, which included intriguing metaphors. It’s common enough to call books treasures of knowledge, but Ward also speaks of books as “granaries wherein the mental harvests of past generations are safely garnered” and “ancient bottles, where in skins of the goat, the calf, and the sheep are stored the rarest wines, expressed and fermented, of the teeming human brain.”

I was reminded throughout the speech (considerably longer than I expected – people had somewhat longer attention spans then) of the more literary style appreciated by listeners in that era. In books “we find the pure grain of wisdom winnowed of the chaff of mortal infirmity, the flowers of song shorn of the thorns of human fretfulness, and the perfect thought, no longer shapeless ‘in its infant dew,’ but crystallized into forms of imperishable beauty.”

Ward didn’t stick to talking about books, however. From discussing the history of books and writing in general, and of the New York Library Society in particular, he launches into extolling the wonders of the modern era (for him, the last third of the nineteenth century). Well over a hundred years later, it is enlightening to see what was then considered the height of mankind’s achievements.

Divinity has freed itself in a great measure from the depressing influence of chilling dogmas, and the pulpit now breathes a gospel of peace, and seeks to move mankind rather by the persuasions of love than by the intimidations of fear. …

Medicine has also been liberated from the rigid formalities of the schools, and is not too lofty to take a profitable hint from Nature, and to follow her indications in the general treatment of disease. Especial progress has been made in diagnosis, in surgery, and in the skilful abatement of human suffering. …

(It would be as interesting to see what Thomas Ward would think of the state of churches today, as to see him marvel at the past century’s incredible advances in medicine. He spoke of the “precious boon” of anesthetics; imagine if he could see a heart transplant or a pacemaker.)

Ward extols the wonders of trains that go forty miles an hours (“No magical carpet could convey us more promptly”), “that wonder of wonders the magnetic telegraph,” and “most surprising of all – even machines for logarithmic calculation.” He does predict, correctly, that someday “flying will become a common mode of travel” – thirty years before Kitty Hawk. More remarkably, to me, he expects the U.S. population to grow to 200 million in the next century; in 1970 the census count was 203,211,926.

Of course, he is far off in some of his other hopes and expectations. “I expect that wars will be prevented by the settlement of national difficulties through arbitration, as was lately so successfully initiated at Geneva.” What would he think of the terrible carnage of wars in the twentieth century? And his idea that water “shall take the place of all other sources of heat, and light” – I’m not even sure what scientific development he had in mind. “The experiment has already been successfully made, chemically, but expensively. It will soon be done economically.”

Ward does have some concerns about his present time. There is less respect of “children for parents, of pupils for teachers, of inferiors for superiors.” Strong-minded members of the “gentler sex” are striving for equality with man. Ward asserts that “Instead of demanding greater privilege woman should remember how much has already been yielded to her since the early age, when wives were obtained by capture.”

He disdains “the revival of the architecture of the middle ages” and decries “the haste and hurry to grow rich.” He especially rebukes those guardians of other’s money who “misused their trust and wasted the public treasure.” (Perhaps we could borrow a few eloquent phrases from his speech for today.)

When I was in school I did not enjoy reading speeches from decades or centuries past. They were full of flowery language or references to people and events that meant little or nothing to me. Perhaps if I had not been intrigued by the possible familial connection I would have given this one up before it really got interesting. But I’m glad I did read it. I’ve no idea whether it would have been considered a particularly good speech in its time, but for me it was both enjoyable and enlightening to read.



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