Daniel Boorstin: Remembered

Historians in the News

Linton Weeks, in the Washington Post (April 28, 2004):

What started out as a memorial service for Daniel J. Boorstin yesterday at the Library of Congress also turned into a lovefest for books, reading and the power of the written word.

More than 200 people gathered in the Thomas Jefferson Building to honor the bookish, bespectacled, super-brainy man who was given to wearing bow ties. Boorstin served as the 12th librarian of Congress, from 1975 to 1987, and he died in late February of pneumonia at age 89.

James H. Billington, his successor as librarian, said Boorstin"was, above all else, a man of the book." He quoted Boorstin, who believed that"the book remains our symbol and resource for finding the unanswered question and the unwelcomed answer."

There were some chuckles during the ceremony and some choked-back tears. One speaker after another painted Boorstin as an energetic and congenial genius who opened the library to a wider public and embraced computer technology and television as a way to spread the words.

News anchor Jim Lehrer recalled that his friend and neighbor knew something about everything and was always ready to interject a thought or an idea, regardless of the subject. Lehrer read an astonishing bunch of quotes from Boorstin's 1961 book"The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America."

It turns out that Boorstin was the author of the oft-repeated quip that"a celebrity is a person who is well known for his well-knownness."

And, Lehrer noted, lifting an eyebrow, that Boorstin was also the originator of this gem:"Nothing is really real unless it happens on television."

"He struck a balance between the computer and the book," said Ted Stevens, a senator from Alaska and the chairman of the joint committee on the library.

"He was an egalitarian," said former congressman Vic Fazio, a man who wanted to make the library and its holdings available to everyone.

The librarian waged a lifelong battle against aliteracy, the tendency of people who can read to lose the desire to do so.

A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard University in 1934, Boorstin was a Rhodes scholar. He received a degree from Yale Law School. He was teaching at Harvard when he published"The Mysterious Science of the Law," the first of more than a score of books. He taught at the University of Chicago for 25 years and was a visiting professor at other colleges around the world.

In the hallway after the service, historian John Hope Franklin recalled how Boorstin had once flown to New York and stayed up all night trying to persuade him to join the Chicago faculty. Franklin eventually did....

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