Thursday, September 13, 2007

Woodrow Wilson on Books

On Being Human, by Woodrow Wilson (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1916)

The 28th President of the United States published this lovely little volume, a rumination on those qualities which mark us as distinct from the other members of the animal kingdom. The first chapters of this extended essay are a paean to books and how reading and sharing information are important components of our humanity. Here is passion indeed from this preacher's son:

You devour a book meant to be read, not because you would fill yourself or have an anxious care to be nourished, but because it contains such stuff as it makes the mind hungry to look upon. Neither do you read it to kill time, but to lengthen time, rather, adding to it its natural usury by living the more abundantly while it lasts, joining another's life and thought to your own.

President Wilson's tenure in office and his advocacy of the League of Nations were hampered by his many health problems, sadly, and one can only wonder what world events might have been altered if this stalwart humanitarian had been well. If only more book lovers ruled the world.


Anonymous said...

My respect for Wilson really dropped when I began to understand the positions he held when a history professor, before his days as university president and US president. It is reasonable to say that his views on post-Civil War America were consistent with the finest traditions of Jim Crow. Unfortunate that in some ways Wilson was ahead of his time, and in others fought to push us back many decades, a push we still have yet to recover from.

Wayne Z.

Rachel Jagareski, Old Saratoga Books said...

Thanks for bringing this point to my attention, Wayne. You are right; unfortunately, our presidents up until Jimmy Carter only used civil rights for horse trading and not because it was the right thing to do, and Woodrow Wilson was more focused on the international scene than the thorny domestic one. I haven't yet read a biography of Wilson and perhaps this is the time to fling one on the "To Be Read" pile.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read a bio of Wilson but he is mentioned frequently in Novick's "That Noble Dream", a history of the American history profession. A Wilson quote from 1898 - "What we need to study in schools is the united effort, the common thought, of bodies of men; of the men who make public opinion, that is of the uncritical and conservative rather than the educated classes."

Another from a Wilson letter - "As for the treatment of prisoners in the southern prisons, that was doubtless heartless upon occasion; but the heartlessness was not part of a system, as Sherman's was."

Novick explains that "scientific racism was much more pervasive than it had been earlier in the nineteenth century", saying Wilson was among historians whose "work was more scientifically racist than that of Bancroft, Prescott, ...".

Anyway, he was a product of his time and had a very good marketing department. As a friend recently said "We remake history every day".