Monday, June 22, 2009

`A Benefactor to Life'

My brother has resolved to read for the first time Boswell’s Life of Johnson. The immediate inspiration was finding a three-volume Heritage Press edition at a flea market in Cleveland. Without flea markets and yard sales, Ken’s book and music libraries would be fatally depleted, consisting largely of the stuff we bought, stole or were given as kids. I tried to follow his example on Sunday, browsing in a Goodwill shop after donating clothes and a sleeping bag, but it was futile. There were thousands of books but nothing I wanted, not even anything the kids wanted, and I can’t buy something just because it’s a bargain.

“There’s the nice edition,” my brother told me when I asked why he was reading Boswell for the first time at the age of 54, “and you talk about it a lot and so do some of the people on your blog, so I thought it was just time to read it.”

The best way I know to sustain one’s enthusiasm for a book is to watch it spark a comparable enthusiasm in another reader, particularly when you’re not consciously proselytizing. With my brother, this happened once before when he started reading Zbigniew Herbert’s poems after I plugged them. The only way to top such satisfaction would be to share it with the author in question, which isn’t likely with Boswell and Herbert. Julian Barnes, in his preface to Paris and Elsewhere, a collection of essays by Richard Cobb, the wonderful English historian of France, describes Cobb’s style – and Boswell’s – and thus its attractiveness:

“Cobb’s history is archival, anecdotal, discursive, button-holing, undogmatic, imaginatively sympathetic, incomplete, droll; sometimes chaotic, often manic, always pungently detailed.”

The reasons people chose to read one book rather than another – Boswell rather than, say, Bulgakov -- are always of interest to me, as they were to Johnson. He addressed the subject at length in The Adventurer #137 (Feb. 26, 1754):

“It is difficult to enumerate the several motives which procure to books the honour of perusal: spite, vanity, and curiosity, hope and fear, love and hatred, every passion which incites to any other action, serves at one time or other to stimulate a reader.

“Some are fond to take a celebrated volume into their hands, because they hope to distinguish their penetration, by finding faults which have escaped the publick; others eagerly buy it in the first bloom of reputation, that they may join the chorus of praise, and not lag, as Falstaff terms it, in `the reward of the fashion.’

“Some read for style, and some for argument: one has little care about the sentiment, he observes only how it is expressed; another regards not the conclusion, but is diligent to mark how it is inferred; they read for other purposes than the attainment of practical knowledge; and are no more likely to grow wise by an examination of a treatise of moral prudence, than an architect to inflame his devotion by considering attentively the proportions of a temple.

“Some read that they may embellish their conversation, or shine in dispute; some that they may not be detected in ignorance, or want the reputation of literary accomplishments: but the most general and prevalent reason of study is the impossibility of finding another amusement equally cheap or constant, equally independent on the hour or the weather. He that wants money to follow the chase of pleasure through her yearly circuit, and is left at home when the gay world rolls to Bath or Tunbridge; he whose gout compels him to hear from his chamber the rattle of chariots transporting happier beings to plays and assemblies, will be forced to seek in books a refuge from himself.

“The author is not wholly useless, who provides innocent amusements for minds like these. There are, in the present state of things, so many more instigations to evil, than incitements to good, that he who keeps men in a neutral state, may be justly considered as a benefactor to life.”

Johnson covers most readerly contingencies, including gout, which I had once in the big toe of my left foot, though I don’t recall it having any impact on my reading habits. Three mint-condition volumes picked up for a song at a flea market certainly qualify as cheap and constant, though Johnson never quite puts his finger on my brother’s motivation: “It sounded good.”


Buce said...

You can download the Life free to your Kindle, see:

Now, to find a Kindle at a flea market...

Gaw said...

Thank you for reminding me of the astonishing Cobb. I've posted a short appreciation of him here.

Anonymous said...

There's always the public library and if one lives in or near a college town a membership at the university library can save on book costs.

I've read Wain's and Bate's biographies of Dr. Johnson. It's time to read Boswell's Johnson.


ken kurp said...

After I dropped Tammy Sue at the rural authority day care and sold mama's hogfat candles at the swap meetI headed back to the compound to finish my chores and help junior dry pack the possum we shot last night down by Picketts holler. When we were all done we snuck off down to the turkey blind to read aloud from this curious construction of magick incarnate known to posterity as Boswells Johnson.

"Yet it must be remembered, that he who continues the same course of life in the same place, will have little to tell.One week and one year are very like one another. The silent changes made by time are not always perceived; and if they are not perceived, cannot be recounted".

Gotta skedaddle, time for NASCAR

Fran Manushkin said...

Ken and Patrick--I own that Heritage edition, which I bought in college and schlepped to NYC. It's in my walk-in closet, way way back, and maybe this summer is the time to retrieve it. Pressure is building.