Old books are ‘foundations of freedom’

Saturday, June 9, 2001

NEW YORK — With their withered spines, fraying fabric covers and browned pages, old books can be captivating. And ancient books that deal with old freedoms can also be powerfully liberating, says the organizer of a new First Amendment Center exhibit.

“This society has far too much fluff,” Brian Bex, founder of the Remnant Trust, a public education foundation, told the audience at the June 6 exhibit opening of Foundations of Freedom. “We study Britney Spears and Jerry Springer and watch professional wrestling, but what percentage of the professors and the teachers can name the freedoms of the First Amendment?”

His collection, a showcase of the history of ideas, could remedy some of that, Bex said, if once again educators used them to teach concepts of contemporary democracy. Instead of passing on a passion for these tomes to students, today’s teachers are bores, he said. “Just ask the students.”

Foundations of Freedom features almost a dozen of the more than 400 works in the Remnant Trust collection, including rare first-edition books that trace the course of freedom, liberty and equal rights. Included in the exhibit are such historical documents as a first English edition of Aristotle’s Politiques (published in London in 1598), a 1792 edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and a 1792 first edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. There are also works by John Milton, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

The collection is so compelling, said First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler, that he initially thought it sounded too good to be true.

“I thought I really needed to go over there and put my skills as a former investigative reporter to use and find out just how big this fraud is,” Seigenthaler told the more than 100 rare-book enthusiasts at the lunch reception.

Bex hopes the displayed texts will help “bring back some substance to society today.”

“People ought to read this stuff; they ought to see it,” he said of his foundation’s treasures, some of which were bought from rare-book auctioneers. Others, surprisingly, were found at junk sales.

Obviously a fan of the Great Books, Bex told the audience that the exhibit could be an antidote to what he sees as today’s intellectual decay. “We’ve created a society of higher education, (but) we’ve created a society where people don’t even know what they ought to read.”

He pointed to bestseller book lists as one indication of the dumbing-down of American culture. “Over 80 percent of the bestsellers in America are on ‘How I can not be so fat’ and on ‘How you can look 12 instead of 40,’ ” he said to a roomful of laughter.

Bex also partly blames the mainstream press, citing coverage of pop-culture topics that once would have been inconceivable. For instance, he noted a recent New York Times Magazine cover article featuring two pornography entrepreneurs.

“They’re painting that couple just like Ma and Pa,” he said, adding that the article said the multibillion-dollar Internet pornography industry makes more money than “the NFL and the NBA, than professional baseball and all the gross receipts for all the plays and all the motion pictures in the United States combined.”

Although the books in the exhibit are encased in glass, the ideas contained within them — deemed radical when they were written and often censored — are still relevant today, according to Bex.

Singled out for special admiration was John Milton’s 1644 essay Areopagitica, which criticized a 1643 English law forbidding publication of any book, pamphlet or paper not registered with the “Stationers’ Company.” Bex called it “arguably the finest essay … on the freedom of the press.”

Seigenthaler agreed, quoting a passage: “Let the truth and the public grapple.”

Seigenthaler noted that many of the books in the exhibit, if placed in a row historically, would trace the evolution of freedom. For example, comparing two of the authors, Seigenthaler pointed out that Aristotle’s ideas on the natural inferiority of women stands in stark contrast to Wollstonecraft’s feminist tract.

“So it reminds me,” he said “that these books really record our own ability to find our way through bias and prejudice and hatred and find a greater tolerance for others.”

Foundations of Freedom will be on display in the lobby of the First Amendment Center at 580 Madison Ave. in Manhattan through Aug. 30.