Big Blue Books: Bring Them Back!

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The cover of my “big blue book”

W.J. Astore

Long ago in a used bookstore, I came across a “Big Blue Book” featuring the counsels and maxims of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  My dad liked philosophy and was a fan of Schopenhauer, so I picked it up, I think for one dollar.  My tattered paperbound copy, published by Haldeman-Julius Company in Girard, Kansas, is not dated, so I had to do a little research.   According to Indiana State University:

Sold for as little as a nickel or a dime the Little Blue Books and the larger-format Big Blue Books were published and republished by the Haldeman-Julius publishing house located in Girard, Kansas to foster the ideals of American socialism and to provide a basic education for the working man. Titles began appearing as early as 1919, but the Little Blue Books series was not christened until 1923.

I think my copy dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s, since it features a catalog at the back that says 1500 “Little Blue Books” are available, all for a nickel each.  You could order all of them — all 1500 books — for $45.00, “packing and carriage charges” included.  The “little” books were about 3.5″ x 5,” or the size of a small index card, a handy size for shirt pockets; my “big” book is roughly 5.5″ x 8.5″.

Amusingly, the advert used these words to sell them: “There is not a trashy, cheap book in the lot.”  The “blue” came from the color of the cover (mine is faded), not from any “blue” or lurid contents.

What strikes me today is the focus on educating the working classes, with the expectation that workers wanted intellectually challenging and controversial material.  The back cover of my book features the following list of “Big Blue Books” available:

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Perhaps my favorite title is the “Tyranny of Bunk.”  We could use a book like that for these times.

Titles featuring Voltaire, agnosticism, Clarence Darrow (of the famous Scopes Trial, in which he defended the teaching of evolution), and the debunking of religious miracles point to the free-thinking nature of these books.  Here the “working man” is not being talked down to; rather, he’s being given the intellectual tools with which he can lift himself up.  Workers of America, read Blue Books and become educated: that was the message of these books.

Workers of those days had fewer distractions than the workers of today.  No vapid television, no video games, no materialistic orgies on Black Friday and Cyber Monday: one can imagine more than a few workers picking up a Blue Book for a nickel and enjoying it.

How much was a nickel back then?  My dad was a teenager in the early 1930s.  He told me you could go to the cinema for a nickel.  In other words, a nickel was real money, but it was also a manageable sum.

Nowadays, I suppose, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has access to libraries of knowledge that far surpass 1500 “Little Blue Books” and their “Big Blue” cousins.  Yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is lost in today’s cyberworld. Under socialism and other free-thinking systems of the Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties, there was faith in workers, specifically in educated workers, as representing the future of a better, a more just, a fairer America.

Do we still have that same faith, that same optimism, in the common man (and woman)? It doesn’t seem that way.  We are simply not trying to educate everyone roughly equally, irrespective of social class and status and so on.

Assuming literacy, back then it seemed that all that was needed was to place the right books in the hands of workers thirsty for knowledge.  Maybe that was a simple vision, but I admire its idealism.

Can we “make America great again” by getting Americans to read again?  To read real books that address serious subjects in a mature way?  Why not start with some new, inexpensive, little and big blue books?  No lithium batteries or internet required.

Not a bad step, I think, as we fight to restore Democracy and against idiocracy.

Why Donald Trump Will Lose

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Arthur Schopenhauer

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump claims that if he loses the election it’s because the whole process is rigged.  But a rigged game is not why Trump will lose.  He’s going to lose because he’s offered no compelling vision about why he should be president.  (I don’t think “making America great again” is such a vision.)

What’s most remarkable to me about Trump’s campaign is how negative it’s been.  America is in decline!  Our inner cities are wastelands! Immigrants are thugs and rapists!  Muslims are out to get us!  Our leaders are stupid and crooked!  Indeed, until recently, Trump argued our top leader wasn’t even born in America.

A relentlessly negative campaign says a lot more about Trump than it does about America.  Sure, this country has problems.  But there are many silver linings in the dark clouds (economy on the mend; job growth up; health care extended to more people; rights for the LGBTQ community more accepted; the U.S. auto industry is back; more action on climate change is forthcoming, as long as Trump doesn’t win).

I was reading Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Counsels and Maxims” and came across a passage that reminded me of Trump.  Here it is:

No man can see over his own height … You cannot see in another man any more than you have in yourself; and your own intelligence strictly determines the extent to which he comes within its grasp …. Hence intercourse with others involves a process of leveling down.  The qualities which are present in one man, and absent in another, cannot come into play when they meet; and the self-sacrifice which this entails upon one of the parties, calls forth no recognition from the other.

Consider how sordid, how stupid, in a word, how vulgar most men are, and you will see that it is impossible to talk to them without becoming vulgar yourself for the time being.  Vulgarity is in this respect like electricity; it is easily distributed…

That’s Trump in a nutshell: vulgar.  Vulgar language.  Vulgar action. Vulgar appeals.  The question is: Will that vulgarity triumph on election day?  Is it enough?  My guess is that it isn’t.  That it won’t be.

His opponent, Hillary Clinton, has her own set of issues, but compared to Trump she has run a more hopeful campaign, or, at the very least, a much less vulgar one.  “Stronger together” is a tepid slogan, but it does stress togetherness, a certain strength in numbers, a degree of tolerance.  And Hillary has simply done a better job than Trump at reaching out to wider constituencies with a message that is positive rather than declinist.

Sure, a lot of people will vote for Trump, and for many reasons.  They don’t like or trust Hillary.  They’re loyal to the Republican Party.  They see something in Trump that resonates with them.  They feel they’ve gotten the shaft and think that a wild card like Trump can help them more than a face card like Hillary.

But ultimately I believe Trump will be done in by his own vulgarity.  He will lose because he couldn’t see past the limitations of his own height — his own flawed character.

But if I’m wrong, prepare yourself for four years of vulgar appeals, of sordidness and stupidity, to quote Schopenhauer.  For as the philosopher said, vulgarity is easily distributed.