Mark Twain begs to be read, almost demands it, even now. The little gold letters that denote his name on the book binding almost grab my arm each day as I make my way past my bookshelf. He has so much to say, and did say during his lifetime that even now his words carry weight for those willing to pry open the book and revel in his prose. His self assured style and easy way with phrases invite even the most skeptical reader to engage his mind as it is printed on the page. It is as though wandering through a golden harvest, reeds blowing in the warm summer wind with the sun warming your arms and face just enough, resting near a flowing stream, and laughing occasionally. His words fall off the page and into the mind. The South lives through him.
James Madison, the most plain spoken of the Founders wants you to peruse his thoughts as his person sits on the shelf between the thin pages of his collected works. Thin pages in order to house his prodigious mind and erudite thoughts that might take up the entire shelf. To look for answers to the questions of governance, he beckons the reader open, peruse, search his musings and letters to understand this American he helped create. His collection is made up of his personal letters, his articles that made up the Federalist Papers and his magazine articles espousing proper citizenship in the still young Republic searching for its identity. He still has sage advice even these many years hence, but no one wants to listen, an old man in a time long past with seemingly no relevance today. Ask him, and he might respond by saying there is no question that cannot be better answered through the sound reasoning of experience. He would be right.
Thomas Jefferson, Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass all wait patiently for their brilliance to be digested. The Zen monks in Japanese Death Poems, haiku written at the moment of death, also have something to say, and impassively endure the passage of time on my shelf. Even Louis XIV has to wait his turn in my salon, much to his annoyance in having to wait. This kings do not do. Napoleon, Dante, Flaubert, and even Gene Tunney all have to linger as I make my way to them, one no greater than the next. The words of Laura Cereta, prophetic as they were, of Christine de Pisan, and Elizabeth I look to be unearthed again as I search through their tales not having to look hard for diamonds of wisdom as they litter the literary earth they sit upon.
They all wait, knowing that their turn is coming, but anxious to impart what they have to say. I am more than willing to listen for our answers, my answers, can still be found in our collective past. David Christian calls it collective learning, the ability that humans possess to pass on our knowledge to future generations unlike other animals who acquire knowledge and die with it, leaving their kin to learn the same lessons alone, suffering the same fates, unable to access the knowledge of their forebears. For us? All too often we cast aside that collected wisdom under the impression that the past has nothing relevant for the now, or for the future. Decisions are made too often on impulse or emotion without careful consideration for what came before us, preferring to blindly decide based on intuition and chance as opposed to thought, research, and listening to those that walked before us, accessing their guidance. In many cultures, it is that sensitivity to the past that allows them greater depth of thought in the present. Some call it ancestor worship, but I call it wisdom. They wrote and preserved their thoughts for us because they knew, instinctively, that what they had to say was important. We casually cast aside those words for as children often do, we think we know better than our parents. Most of the time we don’t. More often than that, we don’t realize that fact until it is too late, or until we become parents ourselves.
So, there they sit on my bookshelf, waiting their turn. It will come, they know it and so do I. The answers are there, I just have to ask the question and be willing to listen. I wonder what they will tell me next?