Monday, October 08, 2007

THE DISCOVERERS by Daniel J. Boorstin

The Book: Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers. Random House, 1983 (unsigned first edition). Book is missing dust jacket, otherwise in good condition; coffee stain and some dust marks on bottom edge.
First read: 1985
Owned since: 1989

Confession: I think this copy used to belong to my ex-fiance. I think that it might have somehow, mysteriously, made its way into one of my boxes when we split up. He never asked for it back, and I believe that some of my vinyl records may have wound up in his crates, so perhaps karmically it evens out. Anyway, B., if you read this and decide you want the book back, I'll send it to you. If I can find your address.

I have very much enjoyed owning this book for the past 18 years, in any case. I reread it cover-to-cover when I was studying for "Jeopardy!", and pull it out a few times a year to answer clients' questions.

"Discovering," as Boorstin explains, is all about giving things names. We see things, we notice them, we give them names, we try to explain them. It is the unique power and right of humans. The Discoverers traces the history of man's effort to name and explain time, space, nature and ourselves.

While I sympathize with Native Americans who say that Columbus Day is nothing to celebrate, I reject the idea of victimization. Nature doesn't work that way. The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde existed because of the Native Americans' own wars of imperialism. The Jesuit descriptions of Iroquois warfare are worse than a Saw movie. Sad to say, it's human nature to take things away from people who aren't part of your tribe, and then to brag about it -- and then to add the bloodlines of the conquered people to your own.

So I might be descended from simple Irish coast-dwellers who were minding their own business when the Vikings landed, but I'm descended from the Viking rapist, too. I can't claim the gallant rapparees without admitting the possibility of the Willamite soldier who might have demanded their hospitality. I don't get to choose which bloodline to claim.

Columbus Day acknowledges this encounter, for better or worse. Columbus himself, as we know, was a famous failure -- he found the Bahamas, not the Indies -- but he was the first great self-promoter of the Western Hemisphere, and deserves our respect for that alone.

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