The emergence of modernity’s atomistic worldview was inseparable from the rapid spread of European literacy in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.Unlike conversation or public recitation, the exchange of knowledge while silently reading was occurring “in here,” within the private sphere of the silent reader’s own mind; it was under that reader’s control, in a solitary process that encouraged enhanced analysis, independent thinking, and self-reflection.
It expresses an ever-present potential conflict between our social allegiances and our self-centered appetites, of which are native to us, and either of which the prevailing ethos of any society might choose to favor in its own place and time.
To an extent unmatched in any other era, the emergence of liberal modernity in the West endorsed a life lived and comprehended (in much the same sense that books then were being silently read) “by ourselves,” and as a consequence, it fashioned over time—first in Europe and then more purely in America—an atomistic scheme that preferred and protected individual rights, intellectual specialization, an aesthetic of view, and an economy of entrepreneurial free agents.
As complements to the silent reading experience, they supplied instead a separate mental space where the individual could actively explore his hopes and fears, making sense of the world and of himself without threat of ridicule or official censure.
As a self-generated version of the bound book, the locked diary is the mundane object that best captures the underlying character of this modernizing self: its sense of segregation and self-containment, its insistence on the dignity of privacy as both natural and right, and its consequent need to strictly control the border between personal expression and public revelation.
Despite the old narrative preferred by the NRA, the armed descendants of Natty Bumppo and John Wayne—who reliably emerged from their self-reliant solitude in the American wilderness to rescue their communities—are hardly equipped to defend us today against ISIS recruiters, cyber-thieves, or corporate polluters.