Abraham Lincoln had a modest library, befitting his focused outlook and humble origins. He possessed some law books, since he passed the bar exam by reading and memorizing all he could get his hands on. He famously never set foot in college, much less law school. (Today most states prohibit this; in fact, I don’t know anywhere in the US that a member of the bar is allowed not to complete law school.) However, the core of Mr. Lincoln’s library was unusually small, if shelf feet is the standard of measure. The books he both consulted and reread most often were the complete works of Shakespeare (especially the tragedies), and the Holy Bible. It is said that in his later years, he read nothing else. After all, he was leading a vast and newly constituted nation of a size and political structure the world had never seen. With these two works by his side, he utterly transformed the nation and laid the foundation for the world in the twentieth century.
Imagine Lincoln today. Perhaps it’s not so different, after all. New York City had an extraordinarily vibrant publishing industry that took its cues from the gigantic British book empire headquartered in mid 19th century London. Of course, the Internet is certainly much larger and more convenient, yet the issue persists: the search for eternal wisdom.
When I was visiting Mexico in the mid 70s, I spent several weeks in the capital city or “day-efeh”—Distrito Federal. Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, was founded by the Aztecs, and in the 70s its growth was explosive and there was a constant boom—even the beggars were busy. Construction was at a fever pitch and the sprawl there defines the term. Serenading everyone was a big noisy radio station, nicknamed “El Tigre”, that had a unique play list—they played only “Beatles” and “Credence”, as they were called, all day and half the night. Remarkably, it worked—this seemingly dull combination was, in fact, a perfect coupling, like a martini, or a rum and coke. To this day I marvel at how they pulled it off.
I thought about this also when I considered Macbeth and Hamlet on the one hand, and Job and Paul on the other. In contrast, I contemplated the anemia of most public and even much private education. They assign children books like Chicken Soup for the Soul in order to be “relevant”. Here and there are bright spots—find a populous Asian minority in a district and hang on tight. Perhaps your kids will make it to engineering school. I have a friend in LA who moved across town in order to get her children into a school mainly composed of Chinese and Indian subcontinent immigrant offspring.
Back in the garden, if limited to only two titles, I would recommend that the Heronswood customer own and thoroughly enjoy Liberty Hyde Bailey’s Cyclopedia of Horticulture in one of the early to mid 20th century editions, usually ranging 4 to 6 volumes, and Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Plants. Granted, none of us are guiding a young democracy through civil war, rather we’re earnestly pursuing an active and detailed hobby. So we may have shelves and shelves of garden law books, so to speak. I must have at least 50 titles in my small horticulture library. But I found the best, and certainly the most enjoyable, are Bailey and Dirr. I. H. Burkill’s Dictionary of Economic Plants of The Malay Peninsula is very rare but a precious gem as well. Also highly recommended is The History and Social Influence of the Potato by R. N. Salaman. The universe in a spud. For getting started, Roger Swain’s elegantly simple The Practical Gardener, Earthly Pleasures and Groundwork are indispensable.