Saturday, September 01, 2012

`Amplify the Little'

Hazlitt on juggling. Lamb on roast pig. Melville on his chimney. Stevenson on umbrellas. Chesterton on chalk and cheese. Liebling on a boxing match. For companionship on a long journey, I would pack any of these essays over more momentous tomes. Nothing bores this reader faster than op-ed-speak, a middling writer’s self-anointed sense of importance. Give me the modest and unimportant any day. A humble subject permits ample wandering room for writer and reader. To make it work, the writer must possess sensibility, learning and wit. So, too, the reader. Logan Pearsall Smith titled his best book Trivia (1902). When it and its sequels were collected in 1933, the volume was titled All Trivia. In his discussion of The Garden of Cyrus (1658) and its examination of the quincunx, Samuel Johnson writes in The Life of Sir Thomas Browne (1756): 

“Some of the most pleasing performances have been produced by learning and genius exercised upon subjects of little importance. It seems to have been, in all ages, the pride of wit, to shew how it could exalt the low, and amplify the little.” 

Think of The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1992) by Henry Petroski. Or Paul ValĂ©ry’s Sea Shells (1936).  Or Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Making Hay (1986). If only more writers paid attention to Johnson’s next sentence: 

“To speak not inadequately of things really and naturally great, is a task not only difficult but disagreeable; because the writer is degraded in his own eyes by standing in comparison with his subject, to which he can hope to add nothing from his imagination: but it is a perpetual triumph of fancy to expand a scanty theme, to raise glittering ideas from obscure properties, and to produce to the world an object of wonder to which nature had contributed little.”


B.R. said...


Thanks again for another wonderfully thoughtful entry: ample wandering room for writer and reader indeed.


Pete said...

That's exactly why I much prefer to read a small story told extremely well (Kent Haruf, Ward Just, Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude) than a big, epic, the way-we-live-now tome.