merica was built upon books – cheap, low-quality books that had begun to pour forth from fast presses, books that our humblest citizens could buy and read, books on every topic. We had few schools, but we had books, and those books were powerful agents of transformation in a still-primitive land.
How do we know about the vast influence of the lowliest among books? Well, there are many ways: Autobiographies of the men and women who built the 19th-century world speak specifically of the way they learned from such books. Those who became renowned in their time often left personal libraries from which we can trace the influence of individual books. It rapidly becomes apparent that the first fruit of those new fast presses – handbooks and textbooks, cheap and plenteous – empowered their owners to bring a new world into being. And nowhere was that more evident than among those who carved America out of a continental wilderness.
Such books left many tracks – many means by which we can know what they achieved. But the one that has touched me most deeply has been meeting the ghosts of their old owners, for they linger in the books they left behind.
I know, I know – I shouldn't speak of ghosts. That's no way for an academic to think. But bear with me. Perhaps, if I reshape the word ghost just a bit, you'll let me use it. And you'll be surprised at how full-blown and articulate the ghosts in these old books really are.
By the way, you can put this CD in your computer; and when you do, you'll be led to the full text, along with images, links, and sources. We recommend you do that. But right now, we have people to meet – people no longer among us. People with amazing stories – stories told by subtle means, yet with remarkable passion. Stories that we'll hear again, long after the centuries have closed over their tellers.
But first, just a bit more on the matter of ghosts. Perhaps the idea will make more sense if we briefly digress into Montana to meet ghosts of a kind we've all encountered, one time or another.
The ideas on this CD derive in large part from Chapters 12 and 13 of the forthcoming book: J. H. Lienhard, How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. (New York: Oxford University Press, in press for 2006)
In a great deal of what follows, I am grateful to University of Houston librarians Barbara Kemp and Steve Perkins for much of the biographical/genealogical information for the lesser-known ghosts whom we shall meet.