WILLIAM EDELEN: Dispensary to the Soul


From Our Archives
WILLIAM EDELEN (1922 – 2015)
The Contrary Minister

A Library inscription in Trajan’s forum in Rome reads “Dispensary to the Soul”. Barbara Tuchman wrote: “Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill”.

I am asking: Will the information technology revolution ever displace the almost genetic and aesthetic attachment we feel about books, along with their unquestioned value and contribution to liberal education?

It was that brilliant Robert Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago at age 28, who said that no human being is educated without at least two years of Liberal Arts, otherwise they are only “functional illiterates”. It reminds me of a scene in my weekly Sunday Symposium a few years ago… an honor graduate of Georgia Tech University in Engineering stood up before the audience and said, “I graduated with honors in Science without ever having had one hour in Liberal Arts, mandatory for developing into an educated human being, and I have been getting my Liberal Arts education here in this weekly Symposium.” At that point he did a startling thing, he unpacked EVERY book I had reviewed in our Symposium years, put them on the front table, remarking he had read them all on his journey toward becoming an educated man.

It has been said that you can see an accurate profile of a person by looking at their check stubs. What they spend their money on gives a vivid portrait of their values, passions and priorities.  SO WITH BOOKS. It has been said that you can read a person by the books he/she reads, books on the shelves of their home. In the past, when I have entered a new home for the first time I always look to the book shelves as an indication and profile of the owner’s values.

My study book shelves… ahhh… how I love them… and am inspired by them. They cover several entire walls… they are my children… they are my brilliant friends and kindred spirits filling me with energy… there is Galileo, Voltaire, Jefferson, Adams, Thomas Paine, Emerson and Einstein, Thoreau, Burbank and the Huxleys, Erasmus (considered the greatest classical scholar of his day) Schweitzer and Mark Twain… and the giants of civilization are ALL there, Promethean giants who shattered the dark superstitions of dogmatic religion and brought light into the darkness because they dared to write and speak, and in our own time, now 2014 are still speaking as our nourishing mother and our lasting life on present day book shelves filled with the light of knowledge.

BURN THIS BOOK has been the cry of EVERY authoritarian regime, dictator, despot… including the Christian church, filled with dogma, and so the Christians burned down the entire library at Alexandra (391 ) one of the greatest libraries in the world, with over 700,000 scrolls destroyed, in what Carl Sagan called the “greatest crime in human history.”

No despot or dictator has allowed dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts or knowledge.

Writers… journalists… essayists… poets… playwrights can easily upset the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind… they are its necessity. Only one exception that I can think of is when Stalin allowed Pasternak not to be touched… because he loved his spirit.

Novelists and poets have nearly always positioned themselves in support of justice, human rights and equality.

Writers and poets, with their books are monumental forces for social change. It was Upton Sinclair’s “THE JUNGLE” published in 1906, which explored the horrors of the meatpacking industry that led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

It was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852, that electrified the antislavery movement… and forced Americans to face the moral question of slavery.

“I put my shoulders to the wheel… to forge in the smithy of my soul… the uncreated conscious of my race…” James Joyce.

That is what writers, poets and books do… forge the uncreated conscious… and that is why dictators and tyrants hate them… and kill them… sometimes, such as Garcia Marquez’s Colombia.

“We must write where we stand; wherever we do stand, there is life; and an imitation of life we know, however narrow, is our only ground.” John Updike.

“The hush of reverence is inappropriate for literature; great writing makes a great deal of noise in the mind, the heart.” Salman Rushdie

“A writer’s life and work are not a gift… they are a necessity.” Toni Morrison  (Nobel prize, Literature).

The library in Rome was inscribed “Dispensary to the SOUL.” Octavio Paz, the Nobel prize author and poet, was called “The SOUL of Mexico”. Mexico recognized one of its own poets… as a dispensary to the SOUL.

What a profound and beautiful gift to a people, a book, with words for the SOUL.