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On cheap paperbacks, Humanities 101, and why it's good for civilization to have paid promoters
Civilization has progressed through the aid of philosophers, innovators, teachers, scientists, and leaders both big and small. The credit isn't equally spread around, nor is it equally well-deserved. But some corners plainly deserve a lot more credit than they're getting.
■ One of those is the mild-mannered Dover Thrift Edition, that familiar mainstay of humanities courses in colleges and some finer high schools. With a library of more than 700 titles -- consisting predominantly of works out of the reach of copyright -- the unassuming collection is a reliable gold mine of common knowledge. And putting the "common" into any knowledge is yeoman's work these days.
■ The praise that should be lavished on the Dover Thrift Edition should take nothing away from its philosophical cousin, the amazing Project Gutenberg, which has converted some 70,000 printed works into e-book format, with a "focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired". But where Project Gutenberg is extremely broad, all-digital, and non-profit in nature, the Dover Thrift collection is more concentrated, both digital and printed, and motivated by profit.
■ We should acknowledge that it is useful to have an institution motivated by profit to see to it that readers get affordable access to canonical works in a variety of concentrations within the humanities. It is good for someone to have a profit motive to say, "Here are 18 books on religion that a well-rounded person ought to read. None of them cost more than $7.00 in print, and they'll cost just 99 cents if you want to download them digitally. We have packaged them nicely and put our reputation on the line to back their accuracy and completeness."
■ For all the many new problems that emerge and changes in the way we live that come into acceptance, it's important to remember that hardly anything about human nature is ever really new. The packaging may change, but the motivations, fears, and thought processes that guide us today are scarcely different from those of any prior era. Getting familiar with the old is a way of efficiently addressing the new -- or what at least seems like it's new.
■ Our nature may be fundamentally the same across many generations, but humans are uniquely capable of passing along guidance and solutions to our descendants, thanks to the fantastic durability of the written word. And for as modest as it may sound, harnessing the profit motive to distribute those words far and wide is a great civilization-building act.