Wednesday, April 10, 2013


knowing and not-knowing

I have emerged from the massive Diana Gabaldon novels as a wee hibernating mole might, or a more likely a sleepy bookworm, blinking at the light, wondering what I've missed, and oh, whatever has happened to that long stretch of dreary weather and those cold temperatures?  Oh wait, I see they are still right here.  And yet, there are also crocuses and hints of green grass and buds on the trees, and the last tiny snow patch has finally melted away from behind the north side of the woodpile.  Spring, is that really you?  Yes, and yet I find myself already wishing for Fall in a weird way, since I see from Gabaldon's website that her  new novel will be published many months from now.  Since I must  necessarily read other books between now and then, and since Benjamin Franklin makes an appearance in one of the Gabaldon novels (and besides, I was feeling most at home in the eighteenth century and am reluctant to depart), I find it natural to turn to his writings once again.  I haven't finished reading his Letters yet, but am enjoying my foray into the Autobiography.  At Goodwill I bought an old Signet Classics edition from 1961, printed with legible type on decent paper, imagine that.  Here, you can see why Franklin is endearing to me, and what good company he quickly becomes:

"From my infancy I was passionately fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was laid out in the purchasing of books." (p.26)

In colonial Boston, he apprentices at a very young age to his older brother, who is a printer, and thus Franklin enters the world of letters:  

"I now had access to better books.  An acquaintance with the apprentices of booksellers enabled me sometimes to borrow a small one, which I was careful to return soon and clean.  Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be found missing or wanted."  (p.27)

He is truly a voracious reader, and learned to read very early in life, in fact,

"...I do not remember when I could not read..." (p.22)

I don't think I do, either, come to think of it.  I have frighteningly literate parents and grew up in households full of books, and I read widely, early on.  I simplify somewhat here, but I often wonder if my years in the book business have merely been misguided attempts to rebuild the lost homes of my childhood.  How's that for a five-cent psychiatric diagnosis?  But I'm not being flippant - rooms with walls and walls of books have been central to my comfort and happiness, for years.  And yet I also love the outdoors, especially wild places where there is precisely none of that, no sign of human endeavor, no need to explain and learn and know.  Thank goodness I feel at home there, too.  A different kind of knowing takes place, one without words, perhaps what is called not-knowing, in Zen.  Then I come back inside, and fall in love with words all over again!  A good problem to have, I think.  Nothing wrong with knowing (and not-knowing), in whatever form it comes to you.  I'm looking forward to proceeding hand in hand with Benjamin Franklin, to see how he managed it, that tricky balance between love of reading and the rest of life.  Right after I take a long walk outside. 

When I was in library school, I attended a seminar about books in colonial America. Benjamin Franklin became the man he was because of books, that much was quite clear. His formal education consisted of only two years in grammar school before being removed by his father at age ten to apprentice in the family tallow business. Finding his education lacking as time went on, Franklin taught himself math, science, and much else from books he borrowed. Books are powerful tools for success. A college degree has value, but I have often felt the knowledge I most hold dear was often the result of private reading and study. Like Franklin, many of my closest and longest friendships came about because of a shared interest in books and reading.
I know you will continue to enjoy his autobiography. I recall the story of Benjamin Franklin leaving his manuscript of the first part with a friend upon leaving for diplomatic duty in Paris. Alas, the friend turned Tory not long after and fled to England. It was thought the manuscript was lost forever until the man's widow, who remained in Philadelphia, died and the manuscript was found safe and sound among her papers.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I am still reading the "Autobiography" and enjoying it mightily. His love of books lifts my heart. He describes his friends as great readers, when he intends high praise. He even marries a woman named Miss Read.

Your words "...the knowledge I hold most dear was often the result of private reading and study." Could not agree more. Thanks again.
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