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.
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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.