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Henningsen: Library Walk

Historian Kenneth Clark argued that, to survive, a civilization requires one thing above all: confidence. Confidence in itself; confidence in its culture and laws; confidence in the individual and collective capacities of its citizens to shape the future. But confidence is fragile. When shaken, it can shatter, taking civilization with it.  Only a pane of glass, a coat of varnish, separates us from chaos.

This fragility is increasingly clear in a society rattled by “fake news”, by efforts to censor phrases like “evidence-based” from official vocabularies, and by relentless demonization of “the other” to make America great again.  

I was reminded of this during a recent walk in New York City, when I chanced upon a sidewalk plaque inscribed with language from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that's all.”

I was on East 41st Street approaching the New York Public Library. Here, on what’s called Library Walk, are forty-four bronze sidewalk plaques with inscriptions celebrating the freedom of the human spirit. The library itself, of course, is a monument to human aspiration and a beacon to large numbers of foreign visitors, who come to witness something many of them don’t have at home: the unfettered pursuit of knowledge by ordinary people.

That’s worth remembering in these troubled times. Those readers and researchers quietly working away in the main reading room are a collective rebuke to the arrogance of those who seek to impose their own version of truth on the rest of us.

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Libraries are a reminder that each of us has the power to be master – to learn the truth and use it rather than knuckle under to the Humpty Dumptys of the world.  What it takes is confidence: confidence in knowing – and acting on - something found on another sidewalk plaque, this one bearing words of artist Georges Braque:

“Truth exists. Only falsehood has to be invented.”