Wednesday, August 20, 2008

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

Pictured above is the pride of the Paco 18th century collection: the 1903 Pafraets Press edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. Bound in sturdy hardcover and printed on heavy rag paper, each volume has a frontispiece with a hand-colored plate of the likeness of a distinguished person from the period. I picked up this set in a little shop in Miami that I frequented back in the 1980’s. The bookseller knew that I was interested in 18th century English literature and bought this collection from an estate on the speculation that I’d snap it up. As it turned out, this was no speculation at all on his part, but a sure-thing, because snap it up I did. In fact, I practically ran back to the ATM machine at the bank where I then worked to withdraw the necessary funds; when I got to the machine and found that they had shut it down temporarily, I lost my temper and yelled obscenities at the shining, inanimate monster, reviling the idiocy of those bank employees who thought that the lunch hour was an excellent time to disable the thing. In any event, I finally got the money, ran back to the bookstore, and purchased the set – an unnecessary display of anxiety and exercise on my part, of course, because it was extremely unlikely, even had the availability of the books been advertised far and wide, that the bookseller would have moved the volumes in less than six months had it not been for me.

What most people know of Dr. Johnson has generally been picked up through an acquaintance with James Boswell’s wonderful biography, and Johnson, the man, has largely come down to us through the conversations recorded by his faithful amanuensis; however, Dr. Johnson was a prolific writer, and over the course of a long life penned essays, biographies, travel books, letters, translations, poems and sermons (not to mention the great dictionary of the English language), all in an inimitable style characterized by magisterial prose, solid wisdom, worldly experience and an ever-anxious eye on the hereafter.

Here, for example, are a couple of observations that might, with profit, be taken under consideration by politicians in general, and by a certain Democratic candidate for president, in particular:

(From The Rambler, #20, “The folly and inconvenience of affectation”): “Among the numerous stratagems, by which pride endeavors to recommend folly to regard, there is scarcely one that meets with less success than affectation, or a perpetual disguise of the real character, by fictitious appearances; whether it be, that every man hates falsehood, from the natural congruity of truth to his faculties of reason, or that every man is jealous of the honor of his understanding, and thinks his discernment consequently called in question, whenever any thing is exhibited under a borrowed form.”

(From The Rambler, #28, “The various arts of self-delusion”): “There are men who always confound the praise of goodness with the practice, and who believe themselves mild and moderate, charitable and faithful, because they have exerted their eloquence in commendation of mildness, fidelity, and other virtues. This is an errour almost universal among those that converse much with dependants, with such whose fear or interest disposes them to a seeming reverence for any declamation, however enthusiastic, and submission to any boast, however arrogant. Having none to recall their attention to their lives, they rate themselves by the goodness of their opinions, and forget how much more easily men may shew their virtue in their talk than in their actions.”

There are numerous anthologies available that provide a generous sampling of Johnson’s essays and letters, and for any hardcore fans out there, the Yale University Press is in the process of publishing a definitive edition of his works.

* * *
Eighteenth-century English literature is something of an acquired taste for the modern reader, and for those who might find Johnson in the raw to be rather ponderous going, but who, nonetheless, maintain (a) an interest in the period and the man, and (b) enjoy mysteries, I would also like to recommend an excellent series of who-done-its by Lillian de la Torre, in which Dr. Johnson and James Boswell appear as amateur sleuths. These are finely-crafted stories which admirably capture the personalities of both Johnson and Boswell, and they are faithful to the language, mores and culture of the times. I believe that there are at least four volumes in the series, the first of which is Dr. Sam:Johnson, Detector. Highly entertaining and highly recommended.


bruce said...

And he's not afraid of 'frazmotically prestedigitating discombobulations' (per Blackadder) either, I suppose.

RebeccaH said...

As always, Paco, you're chock full of suggestions for good reading. As my budget precludes most hardbacks and encyclopedic sets (although I do own a nicely bound set of The Great Books - i.e., the classics of western civilization), everything I read either comes in the library edition, or a paperback, but I can usually find what I want. Thanks for the pointer. Those excerpts from Johnson were fascinating. And thank goodness that my college days of Jane Austen, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and yes, even Charles Dickens, gave me the wherewithal to wade through that dense prose and actually understand it.

However, I confess that these days, the bulk of my reading consists of mysteries, scifi, and Detective Paco stories (only the best written, you understand).

Wimpy Candian said...

Pictured above is the pride of the Paco 18th century collection: the 1903 Pafraets Press edition

Sorry, Paco, I'm confused by your typo here: 18th C, 1903!!??

Wimpy Canadian said...

Of interest to your large Australian audience, I have an actual copy of "The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay". The Dublin edition. It cost me the equivelent of several years of professional women. The only defect is the spine being rebuilt, otherwise all is kosher.

Like you, Paco, I treat books with reverence. I actually have an older book, 1658 I believe (gotta check). It's all about gardening.

Wimpy Canadian said...


Dow hat I do, visit used, or second hand, book stores.

Paco said...

Wimpy: By Jove, my dear fellow! You don't mean, The Compleat Gardener?

TimT said...

Keep on meaning to read a bit more in Johnson. I have a collection of his essays, not complete (maybe such a thing is impossible!)

Nice quote on Johnson from C S Lewis:

There are characters whom we know to be historical but of whom we do not feel that we have any personal knowledge - knowledge by acquaintance; such are Alexander, Attila, or William of Orange. There are others who make no claim to historical reality but whom, none the less, we know as we know real people: Falstaff, Uncle Toby, Mr. Pickwick. But there are only three characters who, claiming the first sort of reality, also actually have the second. And surely everyone knows who they are: Plato's Socrates, the Jesus of the Gospels, and Boswell's Johnson. Our acquaintance with them shows itself in a dozen ways. When we look into the apocryphal gospels, we find ourselves constantly saying of this or that logion, 'No. It's a fine saying, but not his. That wasn't how he talked' - just as we do with all pseudo-Johnsoniana. We are not in the least perturbed by the contrasts within each character: the union in Socrates of silly and scabrous titters about Greek pederasty with the highest mystical fervor and the homeliest good sense; in Johnson, of profound gravity and melancholy with that love of fun and nonsense which Boswell never understood though Fanny Burney did; in Jesus of peasant shrewdness, intolerable severity, and irresistible tenderness.

Paco said...

A fine quote, Tim T!

Paco said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TimT said...

I forgot to include the link, here it is.

cac said...


Re-reading your quotes from Dr Johnson I feel you may be attempting to belittle Senator Obama's qualifications to lead the free world. If so, I must protest as he appears to be much more qualified than Senator McCain.

For instance, I believe a traditional requirement of all presidents is an embarrassing brother who will meet with inappropriate dictators and generally milk the relationship for all it's worth. I understand that Senator Obama has just discovered a brother living in a Nairobi slum. Can McCain do better? I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

Wimpy, that 18th century literature, 1903 edition made me look twice as well. Then it dawned on me the first described the contents, the second the publication date; I decided Paco was probably placing bets with himself over who he'd catch out with that.

Since I had a freebie at Amazon, I stocked up on a few Lord John Fielding books. Dr. Johnson is making appearances, portrayed as slightly patronizing and pompous.


Paco said...

Retread: Not surprising. Johnson was a pretty vocal critic of the novels of Sir John's half-brother, Henry Fielding; it's natural, I suppose, that the the author's sympathies would tilt toward his protagonist, Sir John, and that this would result in a not altogether flattering character sketch of Johnson.

The Wizard of WOZ said...

Dear Mr P.A.C.O.

I feel it is my humble duty to agree with our cowardly canuck compadre (wow alliteration is fun), surely a fellow of your stature would appreciate the fact the 18th century included the years 1700-1799.

But not 1903.

Yours sincerely

P.S. Yes, I know. I did read the comments, but not until after I had composed my response. Therefore I felt you should peruse it contents regardless.

Paco said...

TWOW and Wimpy: Retread hit the nail on the head: the collection is the pride and joy of my 18th century English literature collection, and happens to be a 1903 edition.

Steve Skubinna said...

Samuel Johnson? He was played by John Hillerman in Blazing Saddles, right?

I'm a bit disappointed in that C.S. Lewis quote, TimT. While reading it I was smugly waiting for Julius Caesar to show up as one of the historical characters we know as real people. But maybe not everyone has read and reread the Gallic Commentaries as often as have I.

But that isn't an excuse. Sad to say that for the first time, Lewis has let me down. Fortunately I have Philip Freeman's new biography of Caesar in the pile - it having been a full year since I read Goldsworthy's recent one.

Can't read too much Caesar. Or read too much about hin, I say.

Michael Lonie said...

Surely reading Caesar's "Gallic Wars" is a bit like reading the campaign autobiography of Barack Obama, or any other Amereican politician, as a way of finding out about the real personality behind the name. It is made up of his letters back to Rome to tell the voters how great he was and how well he was doing there in Gaul. Does that tell us about the personality of the real Caesar?

Just found your place. Tim's new place is nowhere near as fun as the old one. No utes on the barbie, no guzzling Sumerian mead, and worst of all, no Detective Paco stories.

Paco said...

Michael: I am delighted to see that you have finally washed up on the shores of Paco Island! If you're just getting here, and you've got a hankering for a Detective Paco story, I've got two new ones since I started the blog.

Here's one.

And here's another.