Friday, August 12, 2011

Key to the Kingdom

    Let's say you're a librarian, and a patron walks up to you and says he never went to college, but he'd like to read his way to a good liberal arts education; he'd like to touch all the bases—history, art, music, mathematics, literature, philosophy, science.  So would you show him where to start because he'd like to go about this systematically?  And quickly, please, because he's on his lunch hour and he's due back at the office.
    And you know just the book to start with, right?

    In his essay "The Lifetime Reading Plan," Joseph Epstein tells of a student who wanted to do a second draft on his college education.  The student felt there was too much he hadn't read and too much he'd missed, so he asked Epstein what books he should be reading.  Epstein's resulting essay on reading habits and what books should be read is witty and worth your time—you'll find it in his book ONCE MORE AROUND THE BLOCK.  Epstein concludes his essay by observing that "there is no systematic way to go about it, no list, no key to the kingdom of the educated."
    But there is.

    Books about books usually belong to one of two types.  The first is the Great Books List.  Here you'll find Clifton Fadiman's THE LIFETIME READING PLAN, J. Sherwood Weber's GOOD READING, and others.  The second is the Where To Look It Up Directory.  Alden Todd's FINDING FACTS FAST, Lois Horowitz's KNOWING WHERE TO LOOK, and dozens of others fit here.  They're all useful.  But they aren't helpful to our hypothetical patron.  Not yet.
    The people who wrote those books weren't asking the same questions as our patron.  They were dealing with questions like: "Which books are the best in their fields?" or "Where do you find specific types of information?" or "What books should an educated man have read?"  In the case of Mortimer Adler's HOW TO READ A BOOK, we see a guide to reading intelligently in particular areas, but that's not quite what our patron's looking for either.  Our patron doesn't know where to start; he's looking for a systematic way to go about getting his independent education, a key to the kingdom.
    But would your patron believe it if you told him that a fine place to start was with a book published fifty years ago by a middle-aged jewelry salesman from New Jersey?  For that matter, would you believe it yourself?

    The salesman's name was Cornelius Hirschberg.  He published two books.  The second was a mystery novel called FLORENTINE FINISH, which won a Mystery Writers of America award in 1963.  His first book was THE PRICELESS GIFT.
    That first book wasn't a novel.  Nor was it the treacly "inspirational" book that title may suggest to the cynical contemporary ear.  The title is dead serious; when Hirschberg called his book THE PRICELESS GIFT, he meant it.
    Cornelius Hirschberg never had the opportunity to go to college; he decided as a young man that though he made his living as a businessman, he would spend his free time learning all he could about art, literature, music, science, history, and philosophy, getting on his own the education he was never able to get formally.  He intended to acquaint himself with everything the world's best minds had to offer.  He didn't understand that nobody (except perhaps Isaac Asimov) could become acquainted with such a wide range of human knowledge any more.  And so, not knowing that it couldn't be done, he got on with the joyous work of doing it.
    But Hirschberg didn't stop there.  In 1960, he published THE PRICELESS GIFT; in that book, he explained exactly how he went about the process of self-education, and how anyone who can read and count can do the same thing if he's willing to work.
    In his introductory chapters, Hirschberg tells the reader that he isn't writing to teach any subject, but to help the reader plan the curriculum of his own independent university.
    Hirschberg divided his book into sections on history, literature, math, and so on, saying "... I do not teach these subjects.  I only show how I study them. . . This is a book to read before you read the books from which you will learn things."
    Hirschberg describes his self-education, lists books he found to be most useful and explains his methods of approach to each subject.  His writing communicates not only what he did and how he did it, but also the excitement of it and the sense of accomplishment.

    Much of Hirschberg's study was done in what he calls "The Subway University."  He rode the subways, or buses, or commuter trains to and from work, and read during the commute.  That time and his lunch hour gave him two and a half hours a day for serious reading -- over 20,000 hours of reading by the time he wrote THE PRICELESS GIFT, covering enough ground for several degrees. 
    He used history as the starting point.  Once the reader has a grasp of history, other learning becomes easier.  This notion is echoed in Robert Heinlein's 1980 essay/story "The Happy Days Ahead," in which Heinlein states "The three-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages, and mathematics.  Equipped with these three you can learn anything you want to learn."  Without history, other areas are more difficult to master.  Hirschberg points out that for us the works of Dickens, Tolstoy, and others are historical novels now. Awareness of their context helps the reader understand them better.  This holds true not just for literature, but for other areas as well.  For Hirschberg, history is the most important leg of the stool, and he makes a persuasive case for that opinion.  Indeed, he states that the sections on history and literature are the essential portions of the book, and that approaching any subject through its history will take you anywhere you want to go.  So, to get the meat of this book, you don't even have to read all 350 pages—100 will do. Reading the first 100 pages of Hirschberg's book can give any reader the tools necessary to plan a program of study that will fill in the gaps in his education.
    Hirschberg wrote well, as an ordinary man speaking to ordinary readers, and if he pushes a little hard sometimes. . . well, what of it? He was a salesman, making what he had to believe was the most important pitch of his life.  He was selling the tools for self-education, performing a public service.

    Now, when our hypothetical patron came in, did you steer him straight to Hirschberg? Did you know about Hirschberg?  If you didn't, and you're a librarian, doesn't it strike you as a bit odd that you didn't know about him? Did you hear about this book in library school?  Did you ever run across references to it anywhere? Doesn't that seem odd to you? It does to me.
    This book should not be as obscure as it is.  In its essentials, it is not outdated.  As a road map for the general reader trying to broaden his education, it is still extremely helpful.  But THE PRICELESS GIFT is long out of print, and it does not appear in the standard catalogs for public and college libraries.  I recall no mention of this book in library school.  The first book in which I saw it referenced was Ronald Gross's THE LIFELONG LEARNER, published in 1978 by Simon & Schuster and now also out of print.  Gross didn't mention Hirschberg's book in his more recent INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR'S HANDBOOK, though he did describe Hirschberg's self-education in the introduction.  Hirschberg goes unmentioned in numerous books about books and the guides to reference work.
    That this book goes unmentioned in high schools and colleges is regrettable.  That it is apparently almost forgotten in the library world is inexcusable.  One of the ideals of the library is the notion of the library as the poor man's university—the place where anyone can go to learn anything.  But when the reader gets there, he may find nothing to help him start.  We can show him how to use card catalogs and periodical indexes.  We can show him reference books until he and we are senile and we can provide all the proper great books lists.  But how many of us could show him how to plan the best curriculum for his needs and temperament? Hirschberg could and did.
    So why is it out of print? Why no rediscovery of this book?
    It was apparently received well on publication.  The reviewer for LIBRARY JOURNAL said that the book should be known by all librarians and should be found in all general libraries.  Comments from other reviewers were favorable.  But as Jay Jacobs pointed out in his review in THE REPORTER, Hirschberg had no formal academic credentials.  People without academic degrees sometimes have a hard time being taken seriously by people with them.  THE PRICELESS GIFT was probably never bought by all the libraries that should have purchased it, and many of those have probably weeded it from the collection in the decades since then.
    THE PRICELESS GIFT is 50 years old now, and Hirschberg wrote portions of it several years before it actually saw print; it's likely that its age may lead some people who know of the book to think it outdated.  A few of his recommended titles are now outdated, but Hirschberg's methods are not, and many of the books he cited are still widely available (some in updated editions and newer translations) and still of use to Hirschberg's proper audience.
    And who is that audience?  Every high school or college student.  Every librarian and teacher.  Every adult with the nagging feeling that he didn't learn as much in school as he should have.
    If there's any justice, THE PRICELESS GIFT will one day occupy a place on the same shelf with Adler's HOW TO READ A BOOK and Fadiman's LIFETIME READING PLAN.  But until then, you'll have to haunt used book stores, or pay steep prices for the occasional copy online, or try to borrow it through interlibrary loan if you want to read it.  If you're in libraries or education, you should look it over. THE PRICELESS GIFT is still one of the best reader's advisors ever.
    And if anyone out there has any clout with Simon & Schuster, why not drop them a line recommending that THE PRICELESS GIFT be reissued? Making it available again could be one of the nicer things to happen to lifelong learning in some time.
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