Musings

Robert Cotner, Editor


In 1986, I was traveling in the American West, lecturing on “Auburns, Cords, and Duesenbergs: The Classic Automobile as Art.” I spoke in Portland, OR, and Bellingham, WA, and then I flew to Phoenix, AZ, for a lecture. I had heard about an Arizona State University publication, which contained an essay on ACD cars by a professor in the College of Engineering; so I drove to Tempe to see if I could find him, get a copy of the publication, and talk with him about his article.

Entering the atrium of the College of Engineering, I was confronted with an engraved quotation from Confucius. It froze me in my tracks. I had had nothing in my own cultural experience that came close to its profundity. I wrote it down and have carried it in my mind since that day. It embodies a domain of wisdom I hold dear and would have my grandchildren learn very early and hold long in their minds:

The Ancients who wished to clearly exemplify virtue throughout the world would first set up good government in their states. Wishing to govern well their states, they would first regulate their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they would first cultivate their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they would first rectify their minds. Wishing to rectify their minds, they would first seek sincerity in their thoughts. Wishing for sincerity in thoughts, they would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. For only when things are investigated is knowledge extended; only when knowledge is extended are thoughts sincere; only when thoughts are sincere are minds rectified; only when minds are rectified are our persons cultivated; only when our persons are cultivated are our families regulated; only when families are regulated are our states well governed; and only when our states are well governed is there peace in the world.

I am reminded that the word craft comes from the Anglo-Saxon word cræfte, meaning strength, power. And I am aware of the enclaves of crafts people I have known, who exhibit in and through the community of their craft-performance the elemental unity of strength, which has made America the vital power of the world it has become and is today. It is the fusion of the endeavors of the mind and the efforts of the hand, in harmony with family and community, working toward the commonweal — the common good — of all, which brings peace in the wider purview.

I think of the Amish community in Shipshewana, IN, a few miles from where I grew up, in which spiritual strength and social empowerment , emanating from crafts of all sorts, a natural part of daily life, propel people in a remarkably unique direction. The Amish may be our finest example of the fulfilment of the Buddhist ideal expressed in Confucius’ statement — there is great irony in that thought.

I think of the knife-making community in Ellenville, NY, which I came to know when I was director of the National Knife Museum in Chattanooga and editor of The National Knife Collector magazine in the early 1980s. Under the leadership of the Baer family, the craftsmen of the Shrade Cutlery forge strength through the commonality of their efforts.

The book-arts community in and around Northampton, MA, stands, it seems to me, as another contemporary enclave, which, in its own remarkable way, demonstrates the dual power of cræfte and guild. No wonder this is known as the “happy” valley!

We, as book collectors, in significant ways, share in and extend the communal power of such communities. We take things — such as William Caxton’s 1477 Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio, Dr. Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary, a 1962 signed copy of Robert Frost, or an edition from Double Elephant Press — and allow the investigation of them to permeate and penetrate our being, our society, our world.

There is a potential here hinting at perspicacity beyond what is immediately obvious. We would do well to remember this.


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