Saturday, April 24, 2010

Californication and the Classics

Dr. Victor Davis Hanson posted "The Remains of a California Day" yesterday. The prolific professor (Stanford University; classics) and author is a descendant of multi-generations of California farmer-grape growers and has an emotional attachment to the land and the state of his ancestry. In this piece he chronicles an average day in his state, commenting on the small encounters that represent a huge shift in the nature and culture of California -- a shift that saddens him deeply. He then writes,
All of which raises the question: how would we return to sanity in California, a state as naturally beautiful and endowed and developed by our ancestors as it has been sucked dry by our parasitic generation?
His long list of recommendations would serve California well, and, in principle, any other state in the union.

I was most struck by his warm reflections on the CSU-Fresno library which he visited that day -- a million-volume library that is one of the best in California, which is nonetheless being transformed into a student-centered hangout, complete with Starbucks. He saw three students reading, about a hundred surfing, texting, watching, and chatting -- a library that no citizen of Alexandria would recognize.

But it was this paragraph that caught my attention:
The newly expanded and modernized library — thanks to the generosity of a local Indian gaming casino—is in the material sense, quite impressive. But even without the massive addition, the early 1980s library was a sui generis, the unique creation of the Europhilic scholar Henry Madden, whose postwar acquisition trips to Europe had ensured the nearly 1 million volume library was among the very best in California (where else in these parts can one find something like the 83-volume Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, the most complete encyclopedia of the classical world in existence — in German?).
First published in 1839 (and continually updated), Pauly-Wissowa has been unavailable to English-only readers (like me) for nearly two centuries. Der Neue Pauly (The New Pauly), an updated German edition of Pauly-Wissowa, began to be published in 1996 and an English translation has followed, Volume 1 appearing in English in 2002 (New Pauly—Brill's Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World).

Projected to be 20 volumes, the first 16 or so are now available. (You can view them at Eisenbraun's -- do a title search for "New Pauly".)

Several years ago, when I learned that New Pauly was coming in English, I bought the first three volumes as they appeared. To have the complete 20 volumes would not rival the 83 volumes of the original German Realencyclopädie, but it would contain the finest, most timely scholarship on the ancient Greek and Roman worlds in existence. And it would be in English!

Then the bottom dropped out of the dollar against the Euro, making the Dutch-published New Pauly volumes prohibitively expensive (they now average around $350 per volume). And my plans to purchase the entire set went on hold. So reconciled did I become to never being able to afford to complete the set that I listed my three volumes for sale (not auction) on eBay for half their current price. They didn't sell (though they were a bargain) -- as I recall, they weren't even viewed during the month they were listed, meaning no one was looking to find affordable copies. So I still have them.

While I was disappointed they didn't sell, I wasn't surprised -- any more than Victor Davis Hanson would be surprised to find dust collecting on the 83 volumes of the Realencyclopädie in the USC-Fresno library, ignored by students too busy texting to access classical texts. Seeing the greatest reservoir of information on the classical world go untouched in a California university library (except by people like Hanson), and on eBay, surely is a sign of the times. (In his article, Hanson doesn't say the Fresno set goes untouched, but I'm thinking that English-challenged students don't access the German Realencyclopädie that often.)

Is there a correlation between the drought of culture in California (and on eBay) and the famine of accessing history's classic ideas of civilization?

I'm glad to keep my volumes. While the articles are intimidating, I know they deserve to be read for their power to stretch my thinking beyond that of the Californication world in which we live. Who knows -- perhaps the dollar will gain strength against the Euro some day and I can complete the set. That's more likely to happen in my children's or grandchildren's lifetimes, if ever, than in mine. The same policies that will keep that from happening are the policies V. D. Hanson laments having corrupted his beloved homeland. While he weeps for California, our founding fathers and mothers weep for the land they once knew and now see slipping slowly away.


  1. Great post, dad. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You're welcome! Thanks for reading.

    Still waiting on some pics and details to post on Philly's newest (only?) vegan coffee shop.