Daniel Boorstin Dies at 89

March 28th, 2007

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In 2004, the great American historian Daniel Boorstin died after a long and prestigious career. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Americans: The Democratic Experience in 1974, Boorstin served as the 12th Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. Here is a brief of this great American.The American historian Daniel Boorstin died this weekend after a long and prestigious career. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Americans: The Democratic Experience in 1974, Boorstin served as the 12th Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. He was a truly great historian and one of the most vocal advocates of literacy in 20th century America. He championed the acquisition of volumes of manuscripts for the Library of Congress and helped create both the Center for the Book and the American Folklife Center.

Boorstin was one of the most important historical writers of the 20th century. He published 20 books, including a trilogy on the American experience and one on world intellectual history. But what made him wonderful was his absolute commitment to the value of books and reading. In his acceptance speech upon becoming Librarian of Congress in 1975, he commented that “Mankind has never produced a technical feat to match the book…the computer can help us find what we know is there. But the book remains our symbol and our resource for the unimagined question and the unwelcome answer.” During his term as Librarian of Congress, Boorstin established the Center for the Book to encourage reading and literacy. He also started the effort to renovate the Thomas Jefferson Building, restoring the Library’s main building to its original 1897 condition. Daniel Boorstin fit the perfect image of a university professor and librarian. Routinely donning spectacles and a twead jacket, he spent much of his life behind a typewriter or in a library.

Not long after his appointment as the Librarian of Congress, he organized a press conference. In front of the cameras, he produced an ancient blue cardboard box with a small key dangling from it. He then ceremoniously unlocked it. Inside were the contents of President Abraham Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was assassinated. They included: two pairs of spectacles; a lens polisher; a pocket knife; the fob of a watch; a leather wallet; a linen handkerchief; and nine newspaper clippings. Boorstin had found the box, on a shelf in his new office, untouched for many years. He said his purpose in doing this was to “throw open the great brass doors of the Library of Congress, to open unopened boxes, and to bring the world of books and learning to as wide a public as possible.” He had a mission to bring people closer to literature and history.

Boorstin was, above all, pragmatic. He said that he believed that America was founded on pragmatism rather than ideology. His favorite president was Thomas Jefferson, who also held pragmatism in high regard. His favorite historian was Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century historian who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Boorstin often commented that Gibbon was an amateur, not unlike himself: no professional association or doctorate in history and hence no need to adhere to the rules he was meant to follow.

He was also way ahead of his time in terms of cultural changes and perceptions. In his 1962 book The Image, he offered a truly unique understanding of the way our contemporary culture uses simulations and false appearances in a vain attempt to transcend everyday life. It was in this book that Boorstin commented, “The American citizen… lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.”

In his eulogy of Boorstin, the current Librarian of Congress, James Billington, offered these words – “He was an exuberant humanist who brought high literary style to a wide popular audience. He put things together when others were taking them apart. He kept history alive by telling it as his story at a time when many were dehumanizing it, first with ideological prejudice and then with methodological pomposity. He was an optimist but also a critic — providing us an early warning of the difference between real and pseudo events, between people who actually do things and manufactured celebrities who are simply well-known for being well-known. Plato said that immortality lies in one’s children and one’s books. Dan and his incomparable wife and effervescent editorial collaborator, Ruth, have opened both of those pathways to an undying legacy. His outstanding children have spoken today; and a great extended family of readers yet unborn will be benefiting from his books in the years to come.”

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