Friday, December 26, 2008

`Distillations of the Lessons of Common Human Experience'

The blessings flowed, embarrassingly so – food, clothing and, of course, books. Among the highlights – the Library of America editions of William Maxwell’s Early Novels and Stories and Later Novels and Stories, Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter, Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Theodore Dalrymple’s Not With a Bang But a Whimper. The last is a collection of Dalrymple’s essays from City Journal, most of which I have already read but I’m old-fashioned enough to find comfort reading them again between hard covers. Included is my favorite among Dalrymple's essays, “What Makes Dr. Johnson Great?” – still the best introduction I know, short of Boswell, to the Good Doctor. Here’s a happy refresher:

“Some people might (and did) find Johnson sententious. His precepts roll through our minds like thunder through hills and valleys—but do they have more meaning than thunder has? They often appear obvious, but they are obvious not because they are clichés or truisms or things that everyone knows and has always known, nor are they like the sermons of a jobbing clergyman who goes through the motions of extolling virtue and condemning sin because it is his job to do so. Johnson’s precepts are obvious because they are distillations of the lessons of common human experience, and, once expressed, they are impossible to deny.”

Also on Christmas I met and spoke with an 80-year-old man who was a friend of Jesse Owens for 35 years. I told him I know nothing about track and field or any other sport but I know something about history and was aware of what happened in Berlin in 1936. He said:

“The thing you don’t know about Jesse Owens is that he was a regular guy, a good human being. Everybody respected him and he earned that respect.”

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