Page 9 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 11 (1952-1952)

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GREAT JEWISH BOOKS AND CIVILIZATION*
By
M
o r t im er
J.
C
o h e n
I
F TH IS title were phrased more accurately, it would be “ Books
Are Enemies of Civilization,”
“Great
Books Are Enemies of
Civilization.” Books are not merely pieces of paper with prin t upon
them encased in attractive bindings. Books are centers of power
and great books are centers of concentrated power. Because great
books are centers of concentrated power, books may be dangerous
to the status quo.
The history of mankind’s reaction to great books proves their
potential dangerousness. Books have been burned; books have
been pu t on indexes; books have been locked behind doors; books
have been kept in sacred languages; books sometimes have been
chained to stands so th a t people could not take them away and
read them.
Yes, books have always been centers of dangerous power and
human beings, instinctively fearing danger, are suspicious of books
and sometimes hate them. Books have often been enemies of the
prevailing civilization in which they were born.
We use the word civilization broadly to mean the rigid forms
into which the human spirit hardens as institutions. Though for a
time they provide the channels through which human beings fulfill
their lives, they grow old and become prisons th a t crush the spirit.
They must be broken to let the spirit flow on to new forms on
which it can reach to heights beyond. Not every book proves
dangerous to its contemporary civilization. The few th a t are
germinal, th a t burst out of the hot fires of genius, these burn their
blazing pathways through the hampering forms and so make
ready for the new advance. Books, like penicillin, are dangerous;
penicillin to germs, books to the spiritual diseases of mankind.
Great books are agents of change. Insofar as these changes spell
progress, books are creators of new orders of being, new worlds
for men to dwell in.
Let me discuss briefly a few such books. I shall mention al-
together ju s t three books, bu t in these three we can find witnesses
of the dangerousness of great books.
* Address delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Jewish Book Council of
America, Wednesday, May 21, 1952, New York, N. Y.
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