Otto Bettmann, founder of the graphics archive that bears his name, is thin, white-haired, jogging-prone, and at 84 has no trouble walking to the subway in snow with luggage in both hands.
He worries that American youth does not read much. Everything is pictures, usually leaping about on some screen or other, with the result that many minds are mainly mashed turnips.
"I bemoan the number of pictures," he said on a visit up here from Florida where he lives. "That may sound strange for me to say. After all, I've made a good living for years supplying drawings and pictures of all kinds. One thing I like about The Washington Post is that there aren't many pictures in it. Pictures are no substitutes for words. I began the Bettmann Archives just to supply pictures to illustrate words, but now the pictures seem to be taking over."
His mind had been much on books, not only because he thinks man lives by bread, breath and books, but also because he has put together "The Delights of Reading," an anthology of brief quotations and anecdotes about books and book people. His royalties will go to the Center for the Book, an organization promoting books and reading at the Library of Congress. They had a book party for him, and he was pleased to sell scads.
Most of the quotations are easily forgettable, like "Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writing so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for" -- Socrates. But others are nice enough:
"Ignorant asses visiting stationers' shops, their use is not to inquire for good books, but new ones." -- Noah Webster.
"Ever since there have been book reviews nobody reads books except reviewers, and even they do it sloppily." -- Goethe.
"Asked whether he liked books, Mark Twain said that he liked a thin book because it would steady a table, a leather volume because it would strop a razor, and a heavy book because it could be thrown at a cat."
Most of the black-and-white illustrations come from the Bettmann Archives. One shows a woman scrubbing a floor with a kind of harness that holds a book in front of her. And yet, no matter how extensively some people are coddled, many do not read.
Queen Elizabeth, the learned 16th-century wit who frequently spoke the truth and frequently did not, is cited, "I walke manie times into the pleasant fieldes of the Holye Scriptures, where I pluck up the goodlie greene herbes of sentences, eate them by reading, chewe them up musing, and laie them up at length in the seate of memories . . . so I may the lesse perceive the bitterness of this miserable life."
Bettmann had a share of misery, coming to America in 1935 to escape the Hitler regime. He was curator of rare books in the State Art Library in Berlin. He brought along a trunk with 1,000 drawings and illustrations, and although everybody thought he was nuts to establish a service providing pictures for art directors of publications, he was proved right. Sold like mad. Even in old age his eyes are uncommonly bright and he moves easily and fastidiously. His mind is above commenting, as most people do when cabs don't arrive, that in the capital of the free world you would think, etc. He arises at 5 o'clock at home, jogs a couple of miles and swims in the sea. He almost certainly does not eat a lot of cream and fatsotorte. A man able to take care of himself.
He seems a merry gentleman. He said death sets off no alarms in him. Books apparently are what made him happy. Not only do the Holye Scriptures provide fodder against the bitterness of this miserable life, as Good Bess said (and she had not even read the greatest of the English Bibles that came out after her reign) but books also afford exercise -- it is well known that Dr. Johnson "read, as he did most things, violently, tearing the heart out of it," which is probably as good for the circulation as swimming, without the risk of drowning or catching cold.
Of course books take time, though Chesterfield once knew a man who improved his moments in the bathroom by reading, and got through all the Latin poets in privacy.
Books can also knock you off the chair laughing if written by Cervantes, diagnose the modern American woman if written by Flaubert, and explain Washington in depth if written by Proust. The only worthwhile book about newspapers is Waugh's "Scoop," and the heights of economy are reached in Shakespeare, since nothing else is mandatory. But as there are many kinds of folk, there are many kinds of book. One man's guide is another man's gibberish.
You often hear that the wheel is a wonderful invention though it required a scientific bent, but with that possible exception books were the first (and remain the best) invention of any consequence. That is Bettmann's view; right, of course.