The Battle of Books


By CARL WHITE, Director of Libraries and Dean of the School of Library Service, Columbia University

Delivered at a Joint Meeting of Special Libraries Council of Philadelphia and Vicinity and Philadelphia Metropolitan Library Council, Philadelphia, Pa., February 4, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 316-320.

MY title as announced may sound like a distant echo of Jonathan Swift's familiar "Battle of the Books," so I shall begin by saying that my purpose and that of the great satirist are quite different. His purpose is rather clearly reflected in the title used when the essay first appeared, "A full and true account of the battel fought last Friday between the ancient and the modern books in St. James's library." The battle I visualize is not thus confined to a single library, is not restricted to a single issue, and cannot be dated or referred to past tense.

This first difference points to a deeper one. Swift secures his pleasing, if devastating effect by skillfully reversing common expectations as to the behavior of books. According to the common notion, as expressed between the lines of the "Battle of the Books," books are lifeless, sequestered, dust-gathering things. It might be put this way: the book is a sort of sarcophagus in which ideas repose when live men lay them to rest and a library is a sort of "cemetery"—to use Swift's own phrase. It follows that any lively participation in the events and issues of real life, any joining of battle on the part of books, is about the last thing you would expect; and the unexpected is, of course, one of the surest sources of amusement.


But external appearances are sometimes deceptive; and, the ordinary unimaginative attitude notwithstanding, the role of books in human affairs has not been that of lifeless, sequestered, dust-gathering things. To address this statement to an audience of librarians is to bring coals to Newcastle.

But after all Newcastle needs warmth, so now that the coals are here, why not add tinder in the form of an illustration or two and warm the room?

Let us skip the Bible this time. It stands in a class apart. A fairer example is Darwin's Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. When it was published in 1859, the Bishop of Oxford—to quote only one of many critics—declared that the principle of natural selection is "absolutely incompatible with the word of God," that it "contradicts the revealed relations of creation to its Creator"; and that the whole conception is "a dishonouring view of nature." But in spite of unabated, bitter opposition, the book made its way so well that Huxley was pointing out, less than a quarter of a century later, that no field of biological inquiry had escaped the influence of the Origin of Species. That influence has continued, spilling out in all directions into other fields, as two writers, Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith, took occasion to remind us not long ago. Assaying a description of the mind of the world we live in, these writers produced the volume published by Doubleday Doran in 1939, under the suggestive title, Books That Have Changed Our Minds. In speaking of the books they use to portray the modern mind, the writers point out that the list is limited to the twentieth century and therefore excludes the two nineteenth century books which have exerted "the deepest influence on our own generation," the Origin of Species and the Communist Manifesto. On the former, the Origin of Species, Cowley and Smith place the following estimate, and most readers will agree that it is deserved: "Darwin's idea of development from lower to higher forms, and of continuity between the natural world and the human world, has transformed not only biology but also the social sciences and even philosophy; it is the intellectual background of the mind of the world we live in."

Our library shelves are literally lined with books which thus mark the date line of revolutionary change. Note them as you walk along. There is John Calvin's Christionae Religiones Institutio, which struck out in behalf of a persecuted religious group, promptly became a major Reformation weapon, and helped establish religious forms and beliefs which have survived to our own times four hundred years later. There is the Areopagitica written as a plea for unlicensed printing, now celebrated as a landmark in the history of intellectual freedom. There is the Wealth of Nations, which Henry Thomas Buckle described as "probably the most important book which has ever been written and . . . certainly the most valuable contribution ever made by a single man toward establishing the principles on which government should be based." There is Uncle Tom's Cabin which became such a formidable abolitionist weapon that Lincoln is reported to have spoken of the war between the states as Mrs. Stowe's war.

Meaning of the Battle of Books

The point I am making is this: the role of books in human affairs is a vital one, and if that role is well understood by librarians and others directly concerned with ideas, it deserves to be better understood by the public at large. It is the mission of books—at least it is the mission of some books —to force the issue of assent or dissent* I am not speaking simply of "controversial" books when I say this. Which it is, assent or dissent, depends somewhat on the intellectual setting of the times. Some ideas readily assented to by one generation provoke, or would have provoked, dissent in another. In the realm of ideas many die a painless natural death; but it is the law of life there for an idea to survive until some newcomer arrives to contest its right to do so. Then it resists, is perhaps overcome, and the new idea takes the field of popular assent. It is like the law of animal life as seen by Ernest Thompson Seton who said, you will recall, that the characteristic end of the life of a wild animal is death struggle with an enemy. In the realm of ideas, this internecine struggle takes many forms, but books play such a vital role in it that we seem justified in speaking of a continuous "battle of books," meaning by the phrase, not a single incident which took place once upon a time in the Library of St. James, but an engagement (whether in libraries, bookstores, parlor cars, drawing rooms, or private studies) along the entire front of the literate mind.

The Guild of Bookmen and the Career of Ideas

It may be objected that, in thus emphasizing the active role of books in human affairs, I am minimizing the work of the authors who write them. I do not mean to do so, and I would defend my emphasis on the ground that the importance of the author is better understood by the general public than is the role of those who take over where he leaves off. In general, the author may be said to leave off when his ideas reach the stage of the finished manuscript. Then publishers, book designers, printing craftsmen, booksellers, and librarians take over. This large, loosely-knit guild of bookmen (if I may be allowed to use the phrase) is able to receive a man's ideas, give them body and form, copy them in large editions and distribute them by sale and loan in a manner which an author living before Gutenberg would undoubtedly have found difficult to comprehend. The significance of the united efforts of this "guild" which I wish to stress is this: ideas are, through these labors, given a career separate and distinct from that of the one who brings them to the point where they are ready to be thus disseminated. It is analogous to biological generation: the child, though owing his existence and all his personal characteristics to his parents, nevertheless leads a life uniquely his own. I might carry that analogy farther. Some books come into existence with no vitality, no breath of life, and promptly die; some are destroyed or their careers otherwise cut short; many live for a generation; others survive edition after edition; achieving immortality for themselves and their authors. But whatever fate awaits them ideas upon assuming book form go it thereafter on their own.

The independence of the career of the book from the personal fortunes of the author is illustrated by the relation of De Revolutionists Orbium Coelestium to its author, Copernicus. For thirty years before his death Copernicus had been convinced that the accepted view of the position of the earth among the heavenly bodies was erroneous, but his conviction that the sun is the center of the system, that the earth is a planet like Mars and Venus, and that all the planets revolve around the sun was known to only a few people, most of them his friends. Then came his death on May 24,1543. On that very day, a copy of the printed book, just off the press, reached him. The printer, Osiander, fearful of the battle that lay ahead, had inserted without permission from Copernicus, a misleading preface. Nevertheless, it was not long until the revolutionary message carried by the book became clear. Martin Luther thundered against the unorthodox theory, as did other contemporary theologians. Seventy-three years after the death of its author, De Revolutionibus was placed on the Index. But even this attempt to crush its influence failed. New disciples, new observations and other books eventually turned the tide in what might have appeared at first an unequal struggle, and the heliocentric conception of the universe prevailed. It should not lessen our gratitude

to Copernicus if we credit the book with its part in a triumph which occurred years after he personally ceased to be a participant in the battle. For it was the book which freed the heliocentric theory from limitations of time and space insurmountable so long as it was carried by Copernicus and his disciples alone, and thereby enabled the revolutionary idea to address itself directly to the reason of any reader into whose hands the book fell.


The nature of ideas has been one of the absorbing topics] of human thought. In speaking of a career for them separates and distinct from the personal fortunes of an author, I am not assigning ideas a special cosmic status but am simply directing attention to an inadequately recognized achievement of the "guild of bookmen." Let us now consider some of the consequences of this achievement.

Control of Opinion by Force of Ideas

The first result is a species of control which it has helped create. Reference has been made to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The immediate purpose of the Index was to control the influence of particular books. But back of that purpose lay another—the control of opinion by external authority. The explanation usually given, that this purpose sprang from a determination to stamp out heresy, is only partial and fails even to do full justice to the position of the church authorities themselves. It is more illuminating physchologically to explain this resolute effort as an expression of a distrust characteristic of the time in the capacity of human (in the sense of lay) intelligence, unaided by some external guide, to find its way to truth. We do not have time to trace the subsequent displacement of this distrust and the relation of the new Emersonian self-reliance of intelligence to the revolutionary change in religion, politics, and science which have occurred since the sixteenth century. It will be sufficient for our purposes to point out that the verdict of history is that the plain garden variety of human intelligence, while all too fallible, is in the long run, when properly cultivated, more sure-footed in its quest for truth than any external guide ever employed. Experience with the Index helped teach us that lesson and in consequence of it we are today profoundly distrustful of any method of curbing the influence of an idea except by means of some other idea which proves, in the open field of discussion, its superiority in winning the assent of free minds. Expressed differently, human intelligence—for better or worse—has accustomed itself to rejecting any authority outside itself and accordingly is prepared to acknowledge no control over opinion—public opinion or private opinion—except that exerted by ideas freely disseminated.

It is in terms of this transition from control of opinion by external authority to control by ideas that the significance of the "guild of bookmen" in giving ideas a career of their own is to be understood. One of the most impressive tributes the guild has ever received was that offered by Edmund Burke when, referring to the three estates of parliament, he pointed to the Reporter's Gallery and remarked, "There sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all." But this classic acknowledgment of the influence primarily of the newspaper, provocative as it is in no way adequately expresses the influence of the printed page in all its forms. The sociologist and the anthropologist, the historian and the librarian, each in his way, knows what the man of the street realizes only vaguely (because it is so much a part of his everyday environment) that Western society could not continue in its present form without that instrument of which the printed page is the best symbol—i.e., without its books, its scholarly journals, its government publications, its newspapers, and its other instruments of written communication.

Two observations should be made here on the question as to whether the book is losing ground to the newspaper and the magazine. The first is that the form of the book has changed radically since the origin of writing and such change can be expected to continue if and as the needs of the race require. The more important point to remember is that the newspaper, the magazine and the book are all forms of written communication which use a common medium—the printed page. Considered from this standpoint, it is less significant that one of the three may be gaining or losing ground in relation to the other two than that the influence of the printed page has so steadily widened since its appearance in Western Europe in the fifteenth century. The second observation is that, while the newspaper and the magazine in its various forms wield powerful influence, their influence is more horizontal than vertical. This is a relative statement, to be sure. But the profound theme requiring painstaking elaboration, the idea which moves the deeper bases of human thought, remains the province of the book. Therefore, if newspapers and magazines have to do with the surface currents of contemporary thought, books have more to do with their deeper ebb and flow. Instead of being looked upon as rivals, therefore, these separate forms of communication can as appropriately be looked upon as companions, each with its own special division of labor.

The Marks of the Literate

With the widening of the influence of the printed page has gone also a certain refining or sharpening of man's intellectual powers. The result of this process is a pattern of traits more or less peculiar to an age of print and print-minded people. That is to say, those whom we consider literate are distinguished by acquired qualities of mind not characteristic of the illiterate. The literate are less credulous, more sensitive to errors in reasoning, more critical of the validity of evidence and sources of authority—in general, more adept at making discriminating judgments and less likely to be swayed by verbal Pyrotechnics and other demagogic tactics. The dual consequence is: on the one hand, there is no form of enlightenment more trustworthy than that which results from the communication of one literate mind with another through the medium of the printed page, and on the other, the world in the end comes around and follows where the literate lead it.

I do not wish to claim too much for the printed page. There are other powerful, increasingly indispensable instruments of communication—radio, film, etc. We are not justified in concluding a priori that any set of acquired mental traits securable through books cannot be secured by other media. Actual experience justifies the assertion, however, that as of this year of grace, the book does some jobs better than anything else, be it companion or competitor. Whether as a means of getting across to others a complicated sequence of thought or as a means of mastering another's ideas, especially when those ideas form a system, the book has yet to meet its match.

But this is not the main point. My main point is that by whatever medium achieved—by radio, by film, by printed page—the personal and the public effects, whether good or bad, of this phenomenon, communication, have to be measured tn terms of those literate qualities of mind mentioned above which the guild of bookmen has done so much to foster.

The Printed Page and the Sword

That brings us to another result—the relation of the battle of books to modern war. The three weapons which set the general character of warfare from prehistoric time to the discovery of the New World or thereabouts were the spear, the sword, and the bow. The bow was the first of these to be retired from the battlefield, though for two centuries it was the principal missile weapon. In the battle of Crecy, you will recall, it was the long bow, a new weapon, which enabled a small English army to crush the powerful cavalry of France. The spear, a shock weapon never entirely displaced, has survived in the modern bayonet. The sword, the descendant of the prehistoric flint knife, proved useful to the warrior so long that it became the very symbol of war. But first gunpowder and then, beginning in the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, a rapidly widening stream of developments in science and technology have reduced the sword to ornamental and ceremonial uses and brought about the present mechanization of fighting forces on land, on sea, and in the air. This evolution in weapons has profoundly modified the character of warfare. As a result, war cannot be treated as the private affair of opposing armies on faraway battlefields. It is total war: the battlefield has become simply the focal point toward which vast energies and resources of whole populations are directed.

But all along psychological factors, too, have played their part in warfare, even to the point of influencing the choice of weapons. It is said that the Philistines considered David unsportsmanlike in using a sling instead of coming out and fighting "like a man" and it is known that the warriors of Greece and Rome did not develop certain missile weapons because of their preference for close-range fighting. As thus intimated and as is well known anyway, war once held for the warrior a glamour which in modern times has rapidly faded. Man may not have become less belligerent in the meantime, but this much is certain: most peoples have turned more and more to books to fight out issues with their fellows, leaving physical force as a last resort.

The emergence of the book as a weapon seems to justify the following specific assertions about modern warfare. First, people will go to war if they are convinced that something sufficiently vital to them is at stake. If they have their own way about it, they are likely to be very, very slow to take up arms against their neighbors unless they are convinced that the step is imperative. War in this age of print and print-minded people is thus preceded by a period of discussion, is in a sense the product of such discussion. In language reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, whole rivulets of ink are spilled nowadays before blood is spilled on the battlefield.

But the battle of books is just as vital in waging war as it is to starting war. This was not true when war was a sort of glorified archery contest depending on little or no voluntary support from the folks back home. But it is true today. The last war made us aware of it: "It is clear"—we read in a book published by the Princeton University press in 1939—"that ideas, for whatever reason they were held, took us into the war and kept alive the fiercely burning fires of industrial, and military and naval activity. Without the driving force of those ideas, there would have been no A.E.F, in France, no destroyer squadron at Queenstown, no sub chasers in the Mediterranean, no bridge of ships spanning the Atlantic, no Liberty Bonds, no draft law . . . no abridgment of free speech and free press."

And of course the battle of ideas has just as much to do with sustaining as with creating the will to fight. Possibly many of us were really convinced of this for the first time after the fall of France. Then we began to realize what the German Fuhrer meant when he told Rauschnigg that he would unleash his armies only when the enemy was defeated. In retrospect it is fairly clear that France was defeated during the very nine months when all was so quiet on the Western front that powerful voices were describing this prelude to catastrophe as a "phony" war.


So much for a theoretical analysis of the meaning of the battle of books. What is its practical meaning?

Noblesse oblige

In the first place, the foregoing analysis, if valid, calls for responsible intellectual leadership. And at this point, the task of the publisher, the librarian, and other members of this "guild" becomes inseparable from that of the writer, the educator and all others concerned with ideas and their dissemination. The responsibility does not belong exclusively even to this larger group; in the end it belongs to the people as a whole; but to those professionally concerned with ideas belongs the first responsibility, and those not professionally concerned with ideas have a right, it seems to me, to expect us to assume it.

In some of our libraries is the series of Oxford pamphlets published during the last war to interpret its meaning to the British public. One of these pamphlets is entitled, "Fighting a Philosophy." The point of the pamphlet is that the drive behind the military action of the German people was an ideology closely related to the philosophy of Nietzsche. Some might contend, with reason, that the pamphlet oversimplified a complex situation; but hardly anyone would deny either the presence of a distinguishable set of ideas or their potency in the war situation.

On the military front, the Allies won success in the autumn of 1918; but in so far as it can in fairness be said that the enemies of aggression within and without Germany were fighting a philosophy, they were less successful. For it was a similar "philosophy" which reappeared in Mein Kampf and which was militantly defended in a well-known declaration late in 1941 that we were in a war between two worlds and these worlds were so antithetical that only one could survive.

It would be too much to place the blame for the recrudescence of ideas which threaten the welfare of all but a "master race" directly on the intellectual leaders of the world, but the record between the two world wars is one in which the man whose concern is ideas can take no pride. Either he must deny, or—what comes to much the same thing—disregard the fact that ideas have any real significance in public affairs, or he must share responsibility for the course taken by public affairs in consequence of them.

Can Those Professionally Concerned With Ideas Take Responsibility

It calls, in the second place, for reconstruction of the position of the liberal thinker. The root meaning of "liberal" is freedom. We should have the sanction of etymology, if the liberal were described as one whose thought and action are governed by the dictates of free intelligence: his thinking, being responsible, would issue in moral conviction and, having the courage of his convictions, he would stand up for them. This would not mean that he would always be right in any absolute sense; but he would be right to the extent that honest search for the truth would enable him to be; and, being honest, he would hold himself in readiness to revise his thinking—to change his position—if and as continued search for truth make change desirable.

There are many liberals who fit such a description. There are self-styled liberals who do not. The great divide comes close to this matter of conviction. When in the late 1930's it was pointed out that recent literature presenting democracy in a favorable light was quite limited as compared with literature representing other political theories, we explained our awkward position in that light: can the liberal really have conviction and remain liberal? Can he take a stand on any issue without sacrificing his principles?

It seems to me that these questions deserve to be answered in the affirmative and that if there is doubt on the point the whole history of the liberal tradition offers plenty of proof of it. The positive attitude any responsible citizen ought to be able to take, regardless of profession, is suggested by the following statement addressed by a public official to educators in one of the darkest moments of our national history:

"Teach your student. . . that our future will be what we are strong enough and resolute enough and intelligent enough to make it against the opposition of able and ruthless men who are determined to make it something else. Teach them that there is no Santa Claus, that we will get no more than we work for, and that unless we work hard enough and intelligently enough we shall be worse off than we could ever have imagined. Above all, teach them that when we hove won the war the crisis will not be over—will, indeed, have come to its most critical stage; that we can't afford to stop working and to stop thinking when the shooting stops. . .

H. G. Wells, writing just after the last war, described the situation of humanity at that time as a race between education and catastrophe. As we all know, catastrophe won that race. But if the United Nations win this war, education has one more chance.. . . If we lose the next race, the next catastrophe will be a bigger and better catastrophe which might close this phase of the development of the human species. .."

You can point out that there is danger in taking a stand like that. You are likely to be called a propagandist. That danger is real. Farther along that road lies dogmatism, intolerance, bigotry. But it need be a danger only; it can be avoided by the man whose convictions are formed in the light of the best information he is able to secure, who is intellectually honest and who is therefore capable of changing his position if subsequent information at any time reveals that he should do so.

Relation of the Battle of Books to Public Leadership

Finally the waging of the battle of books has a bearing on public policy. It falls outside my present purpose to describe how intellectual or cultural services relied on so heavily by the modern world unofficially can better be fitted into the framework of official policy. But the conclusion that public action normally follows pretty closely the thinking of literate people, and that the thinking of literate people normally follows the most powerful intellectual forces of the times, has some inescapable implications. It implies a policy of recognizing and systematically developing intellectual leadership of high order. It implies a policy of protecting and supporting all those professionally concerned with ideas who show intellectual integrity and a sense of public responsibility. It implies a policy of keeping accessible to the public the sources of information—the press, the open forum and that increasingly important source of all kinds of information, the modern library.

It implies finally a need of reexamining and improving methods of public leadership. America has faith in its fighting men. It has faith, too, that industry will contribute its part to victory. If American faith falters, it is at that point where military leaders and industrial leaders finish their part of the war and the politicians take over. It is not so much lack of faith in individual political leaders, for in some of them the nation has great confidence. It is rather lack of faith, borne of bitter experience, in our leadership methods—in the measure in which the best thinking on the part of the unofficial public is translated into public action.

One conception of the way to improve public leadership is represented by the Fuhrer principle. But that method plainly exhibits the same faulty assumption which has shown up in a century and a half of practical American politics—the self-flattering assumption, namely, that public leadership is the prerogative of the political figure. Such a conception is pre-literate in that it gives no standing, no deserving recognition to intellectual and cultural forces; in the dictator countries, these forces have, in fact, been subject to the political leader. A conception better adapted to the needs of an age of literate-minded people was timidly put forward by the League of Nations. The .creation of the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation amounted to recognizing the fact that if public leadership has its political side, the other side of the penny is intellectual, informational. But the League was fundamentally a tool of political action, was not conceived as a tool for cultivating at the same time the grass roots of public understanding, so the Committee never became more than a sort of peripheral adjunct and its influence was limited in full proportion.

Without clouding an insight by advocating specific measures for improving leadership methods at the national or international level, the present analysis suggests that it would be stupid to underestimate the power or the potential public benefits of such intangible quantities as ideas, such abstractions as communication, such apparently lifeless, often sequestered, dust-gathering things as books. It suggests that a literate world would do well to make it a matter of conscious policy to put the battle of books to more direct, more constructive social uses than it has in the past or that it shows any thought-out intentions of doing in the future. It suggests that if we do so, if we go all out to wage the battle of books in the interests of nationwide or world wide enlightenment, we shall have to find ways whereby the services of unofficial leaders who have so much to do in the long run with the thinking of literate people everywhere shall be better utilized by those official leaders whom we entrust with making decisions about our immediate future. It suggests that these services be utilized, not for the sake of the "guild of bookmen" and others professionally concerned with ideas, but for the sake of improved leadership methods and that, while the harried political leader has much to think about these days, he cannot brush off his long-range effectiveness on the ground that he is too busy with matters of immediate importance to think about it. It suggests that time is a factor; that once political leaders take over whose conception of world leadership accords intellectual leadership no real standing, we shall have missed the bus; that the time to plan tomorrow's intellectual services is before the shooting stops; that once a world made plastic by military force is allowed to harden unresponsively through lack of the best leadership methods we can devise, we may find ourselves, like Swift's foolish Moderns on Parnassus, faced with a granite-like situation against which we shall break our tools and our hearts without success.