Yesterday's News Today

An old book sheds light on our times.

Old books, like old cars unable to pass emission tests due to bad ignition or low compression or worn rings, are sometimes better than the new ones. They are usually cheaper, they are unfashionable, they are sometimes unbound with uncut pages blemished by deep impressions of letterpress machinery, printed on durable paper and stitched along the spine rather than stuck together with dried glue like fast-food sandwiches kept under infrared lights.

Long ago, before North Fourth Avenue was de-blighted and urban renewed into a juvenile Disneyland of bad bars and curio shops and overpriced vegetables, I could browse for hours in the junk stores there. It was slow work, like placer mining, but patience was rewarded now and then.

Lately, when feeling offended by the county library's exclusive policies--I found they had thrown out everything in French and Italian to make room for more computers and banished Erick Barnouw's four volumes and a heavy tome called Empire of the Air to some obscure branch in a landfill--I explored Thrift World on Ajo, where patient browsing has been rewarded before.

Of course, there were the usual Readers Digest condensed books, the ubiquitous Lee Iaccocca and the inescapable textbooks carefully edited by committees and predigested by the Texas Schoolbook Commission. But I also found a like-new trade paperback called The World of Yesterday by the famous Austrian playwright Stefan Zweig (1881-1942).

I was captivated by the charming Herr Zweig. He kept me up all night. (This was Lord Byron's definition of a good book.)

Unlike that other famous Austrian, Adolph Hitler, Zweig loved Old Vienna in the declining years of the Hapsburg empire and lived in the ambiance of theater and music and the coffeehouses that subscribed to newspapers from all over Europe and America.

He was less entranced by the imperial state education system. He says the authorities were afraid of the young because they were immature and unstable and too wild. They were expected to learn five languages, ancient and modern, but any kind of fun was forbidden. Even Austrian music (Mozart, Goldmark, Gustav Mahler, Schonberg, the Strauss dynasty) was excluded from the dusty, moldy schools. One was educated not for youth and discovery but for responsible old age.

Too seldom the poor little prisoners could sneak out and hang around the theaters and green parks. Zweig says the teachers were so distant, cold and pedantic that he can't remember any of their names.

Nor was Zweig entranced by World War I, the subsequent dismemberment of Austria-Hungary and the conquest by National Socialism. The theaters and coffeehouses were replaced by true believers and torchlight parades of brownshirts.

Zweig himself, an assimilated Jew, internationalist and lifelong pacifist, was uprooted. He became an English citizen (The World of Yesterday was written in a slightly stilted yet lyrical and forgetful English) and died in Brazil.

Shortly after he completed this book, Zweig and his wife were suicides. He left behind a farewell note:

". . . The world of my own language disappeared for me and my spiritual home, Europe, destroyed itself."

My copy of this rare find was published by the University of Nebraska press in 1964. The pages are identical to the first edition (Viking) of 1943.