Wednesday, January 16, 2013

`Burials of the Better Sort in England'

“A library is the mind's way to three or four good sentences.” 

If we’re persistent, that is, and fortunate. I’ve visited libraries, public and private, barren of good sentences and good sense. Once I spent a night in a house with hundreds of books and nothing to read. I looked at boating magazines from the nineteen-fifties and consoled myself with illustrations by the cartoonist Basil Wolverton. 

The author of the aphorism above, David P. Gontar, is being helpfully cynical. He gives us a literary corollary to Gresham’s law: Bad books, like bad money, drive out the good stuff. Good fortune in the guise of Mike Gilleland led me to William Carew Hazlitt (1834-1913), the industrious grandson of the essayist and critic. In 1905, Hazlitt published the two-volume Faiths and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, etc.  The book is a reworking of Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1777) by John Brand and Sir Henry Ellis. 

I borrowed the Fondren Library copy of Hazlitt’s revised edition (Reeves and Turner, 83, Charing Cross Road) which is browning and foxed, and apparently hasn’t circulated since 1964. The stark, black-on-white bookplate says only “Charles Wells.” It’s a grab bag of marginally scholarly lore, much of it possessing the voyeuristic fascination of Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Guinness Book of World’s Records. Good Sentence #1, from the entry for “Books”: 

“Books, by way of funeral tokens, used to be given away at the burials of the better sort in England.” 

Good Sentence #2, from “Treacle” (chosen for its absolute absence of information, a formerly rare writerly gift): 

“A supposed universal antidote and specific, made in various ways, and originally, of course, unconnected with treacle.” 

Good Sentence #3, from “Monitor Lizard”: 

“The inhabitant of the Nile district and of the Transvaal is popularly supposed to utter a sort of warning in the shape of a hissing sound at the approach of a crocodile.” 

Good Sentence #4, taken not from Hazlitt’s book but from a newspaper clipping tucked between pages 384 and 385 in Volume II (“Mandrake”). The clipping has been dated (“8 Sept. 1915”) but the newspaper is not identified: 

“The kokil or Indian cuckoo is respected by the Hindus.” 

Gontar is correct. My mind has found its way to four good sentences. In another of his “Selected Aphorisms,” Gontar notes, “Our destiny:  to cross the sea of life on a raft of words.” We might add: “Our own and, more importantly, others’.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In Dickens's novel, Nicholas Nickleby, the starving boys at Mr. Wackford Squeers's boarding school were frequently dosed with 'treacle and brimstone' (molasses and sulfur) to suppress their appetites and reduce their porridge consumption.