The Guardian’s obituary for Baba Ram Dass comments about his most famous book
He wrote about his conversion in Be Here Now, which became popular in the 1960s and provided a road map for the burgeoning New Age movement of spirituality.
Now, this should have given the writer pause, given that a prior paragraph dated his travel to India and religious conversion to late 1967. Indeed, Be Here Now was published in 1971, making its popularity in the 1960s of a particularly esoteric sort.
I suppose they’re not talking about the literal 1960s — as in, the span of ten years beginning from 1 January, 1960 AD — but rather, about the cultural 1960s, that began between the Chatterley case and the Beatles’ first LP, continued, as Hunter Thompson put it, only in San Francisco,
in the middle sixties… a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run … but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.
now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Or maybe it never ended. Donald Trump is in many ways the apotheosis of the 1960s. The reduction of politics and traditional institutions to pure id and appetite. The unmasking of the White House mystique as just a cranky old antisemite with a fourth-grade vocabulary and a jones for Big Macs. He’s not what Abbie Hoffman thought he was fighting for, but in retrospect it turns out that’s what he was fighting for.
I just had the thought: Who would have predicted, thirty years ago, that in 2016 bookstores would still be thriving, but video stores would have all but disappeared?
I am reminded of this essay by Isaac Asimov, “The Ancient and the Ultimate”, that I read about 1980, but was written in the early 1970s, about the future of video technology. He was at a conference on communications and society, where a speaker was praising the new technology of videocassettes, and suggesting that authors such as him would soon be tossed on the scrapheap of history. The essay speculates about possible future improvements to video technology, inferring tongue-in-cheek that the pinnacle of the technology would be attained when it had turned into books.
It is always enlightening to see how some of the same breathless optimism derived from our newest innovations, the claims that perennial problems are going to be solved at last, were also derived from innovations a century or more old, when they were new. In particular, I was struck by Kevin Birmingham’s account (in his remarkable book on the genesis of James Joyce’s Ulysses) of the early days of Random House, and its Modern Library series:
Both within and beyond universities, people began thinking that certain books illuminated eternal features of the human condition. They didn’t demand expertise — one didn’t need to speak classical Greek or read all of Plato to benefit from The Republic — all they demanded was, as [Professor John] Erskine put it, “a comfortable chair and a good light.” […]
The Modern Library offered commodified prestige with the illusion of self-reliance. Readers could have the benefits of institutional culture without the institutions. They could rise above the masses by purchasing a dozen inexpensive books.
Replace “good light” by “fast internet connection”, and you have the promise of Coursera. Of course, that jibes well with the feelings that many skeptics have, who wonder why we need new technology to democratise education. As long as you’re lecturing to masses, where personal feedback is logistically impossible, doesn’t it suffice to have a well-stocked library?