The American Way with Books

October 27, 2008

Linda Hewitt continues a dialogue about “Neat Old Books,” books that are simply too pleasurable to be forgotten. In this post, Linda confides her addiction to books and reading and the way in which it has shaped how she and her equally book-addicted husband Robert live.

There weren’t a lot of books in colonial America, especially in the earliest years. Apart from Bibles and theological works, in fact, there were very few. As universities developed, their libraries remained overwhelmingly theological in nature but also included works of history, science, poetry, legend and the like – most in Greek or Latin. There were some personal libraries, which often tended to include the same kind of content and were rarely open to any but the owner and his immediate family and friends.

Books were particularly necessary in the colonies of the 17th and 18th centuries. They were viewed as the “go to” source for accurate or inspirational facts and opinions, because there was no other way of getting definitive information on an idea or issue. Public and private discourse and disputation were important in the ability of the ambitious of the time to make useful connections and exert influence. This meant that a man without access to books who had professional or political aspirations was at a definite disadvantage. Books also served as a way of passing along practical information, important in a situation where continuity of knowledge might not exist regarding certain crafts or agricultural practices.

Three of our most book-dependent Founding Fathers – Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson – approached the library-building conundrum in very different ways. Their strategies reflected both their personalities and their resources. Print This Post Print This Post

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