Friday, December 13, 2013

`To Have As Many Books About Me As I Could'

Each of the four editions of Boswell’s Life of Johnson on my shelves was a gift -- from Boswell and Johnson, of course, but in a more immediate sense from friends and relatives. That the offspring of this most renowned of literary friendships should be given to a reader ardently devoted to the book by those closest to him is tribute to all involved -- the author and his subject, the givers and the recipient. Here is James V. Schall in On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs (ISI Books, 2001): 

“One of the joys of teaching is that students, over the years, have given me books I might not otherwise have seen or read. They seem to know books or essays their somewhat odd professor will especially like—how I am never quite sure, but they are usually right. Years ago, a graduate student saw a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson in a used bookstore in Miami. He bought it for me for a couple of dollars because I had read something of Johnson in class. I still read a little of it almost every day. Its charm has not lessened. Life is too short to comprehend it all, I think.” 

In an appendix to the same volume, Schall includes the Life on a list of twenty-five titles he calls “These-People-Tell-the Truth Books.” Johnson must be among Father Schall’s tutelary spirits, as is G.K. Chesterton, another Johnson admirer. He shows up in all five of the books of his I’ve read and in scattered essays and reviews. (Go here, here and here for more of his work.) In The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking (ISI Books, 2006), in a chapter titled “Books and the Intellectual Life,” after a digression into C.S. Lewis, Schall writes: 

“But back to Samuel Johnson and one of his statements about books, a passage on which I often reflect. In his immensely insightful book, Boswell recalls several observations that Johnson made on Monday, September 22, 1777. `Dr. Johnson advised me to-day to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. “What you have read then (said he,) you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you again have a desire to study it.” He added, "if a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better if a man reads from immediate inclination.’” 

My wife was a student of Father Schall’s at Georgetown in the nineteen-eighties. I’m his student at several removes, having never met him, through his writing. He embodies the spirit of the motto of Anecdotal Evidence, “a blog about the intersection of books and life.” The title of one of his books, Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine’s Press, 2006), he explains, is drawn from an observation reported by Boswell: 

“I mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. Johnson: `There is nothing, Sir, too little for a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’  

Johnson died on this date, Dec. 13, in 1784, at the age of seventy-five.

1 comment:

mike zim said...

Working on my father's wrestling biography, and the last paragraph spoke to me.
Thanks for noting the anniversary.