Daniel Boorstin, at 78, is still enthusiastic about creativity


November 01, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- Daniel Boorstin is being interviewed. And he' taking notes.

He's seated behind a massive wooden desk in the basement study of his roomy, four-story home in a leafy, well-off part of Northwest Washington. Surrounding this former Librarian of Congress and noted historian are, naturally, hundreds of books. They fill the walls on three sides, occupying shelves from ceiling to floor.

No casual dress here -- he looks spiffy as all get-out in jacket, slacks and bow tie. In one hand is a small note pad; in the other, a pencil.

The question before him: How did he select the subjects in his latest book, "The Creators"? Mr. Boorstin looks at the pad for a moment, then writes quickly, "Characteristics." He answers, after moment of thought, in measured tones:

"First, the novelty -- they did something unique," says Mr. Boorstin, showing a facility for organizing and articulating thought that was honed by 25 years of teaching at the University of Chicago. "Second, immortality. They have survived the test of time.

"And, finally, iridescence -- the quality of seeing new and different lights." After answering the question, he has the pad and paper poised, ready to move on.

There's no small coincidence that Daniel J. Boorstin, a longtime iconoclast himself, chose the last criterion -- and that, at 78, he remains in the dual role of teacher and student, the guy who's still taking notes. "He continues to be very enthusiastic about learning, and that's remarkable for someone his age," says Robert Loomis, his longtime editor at Random House.

That enthusiasm is evident in "The Creators," the massive (811 ++ pages) and ambitious work that is meant as a companion to Dr. Boorstin's enormously popular 1983 book, "The Discoverers." How ambitious is "The Creators"? The author merely delves into the lives of men and women over the past couple of thousand years in the hope of understanding how these people "have brought something new into the arts," as he writes in a "Personal Note to the Reader" at the beginning of "The Creators."

Explorations of creativity

Like much of Mr. Boorstin's earlier work, "The Creators" goes against the grain. How many other people would write a book exploring the creative urge, profiling such disparate persons as the Roman emperor Nero, Rabelais, the early Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi, Virginia Woolf, Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso? How many other historians would open themselves up to renewed charges of writing "popular" books that wander all over the map, covering many topics outside their own specialty?

"I expect it [criticism]," he says in the off-hand manner of someone who has, indeed, taken his share of shots from critics and dissenters. "But I don't write for the critics -- I write for the reader. And I don't worry about how what I write will be classified in some learned journal."

He's gotten generally good reviews for "The Creators." Harrison Salisbury, writing in the Chicago Tribune, complained: "He seemingly darts from one perspective to another, pausing a moment to proclaim a truth and then passing so rapidly and with small emphasis that we almost forget what he has said as we race with him to the next crescendo of belief." But he conceded that Mr. Boorstin "has, for the most part, accomplished his grandiose task with skill and eloquence."

That he tries to do too much in his books, and wanders into areas he's not qualified to write about, is a frequent complaint leveled against Mr. Boorstin. Otto Friedrich of Time concluded in his review of "The Discoverers": "In attempting to cram in everything from ethnography to atomic particles, Boorstin ends by giving the impression of a man trying to repack a suitcase that inexplicably burst open while he was running after a departing bus in the rain."

A true 'amateur'

Mr. Boorstin, though, says that's an offense to which he's happy to plead guilty.

"Some people might call me 'amateur,' but I glory in that name," he says. "Nowadays, that term is associated with someone who is unprofessional. I look at its original meaning, which meant a lover of something. I think that's what the great historians did.

"One of the great parts of writing this book for me was the process of rediscovery by rereading. Because in reading a book, there's always a part of you that has been transformed since the last time you read it."

What's striking about "The Creators" is that despite its length, Mr. Boorstin never gives the reader his own views about creativity.

"You notice that my last history book was called 'The Americans,' " he says, slipping back into his professorial mode. "The next book was called 'The Discoverers.' Now 'The Creators.' They take their name from people. I don't write about American culture, or civilization. I write about Americans."

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