Wednesday, January 01, 2014

`Nothing But a Talk With the Reader'

Let’s think of today as the preface to the New Year, the calendrical foreword. If 2014 is to be a book, it is self-publishing and we must be its writers and readers, though collaborative enterprises seldom work. The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903) and The Nature of a Crime (1909) remain minor entries in the Conrad/Ford bibliography. As Charles Lamb was collecting the Essays of Elia – a sort of self-collaboration – which he had been publishing in The London Magazine since 1820, he fretted over their presentation. By nature, Lamb was a seat-of-his-pants writer, trusting instinct over logistics. Fortunately for us, his instincts were reliable if not infallible, and his invention seldom flagged. On Dec. 7, 1822, Lamb wrote to his publisher, John Taylor: 

“I should like the enclosed Dedication to be printed, unless you dislike it. I like it. It is in the olden style. But if you object to it, put forth the book as it is. Only pray don’t let the Printer mistake the word curt for curst.” 

The Dedication is a hoot, another Lambian put-on: “The Author wishes (what we would will for himself) plenty of good friends to stand by him, good books to solace him, prosperous events to all his honest undertakings, and a candid interpretation of his most hasty words and actions,” and so on. Then he adds: “On better consideration, pray omit that Dedication. The Essays want no Preface: they are all Preface. A Preface is nothing but a talk with the reader; and they do nothing else.” 

The Essays of Elia was published in 1823 without a preface. In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson defined essays as “imperfect offers, loose sallies of the mind, irregular or undigested pieces.” A Happy New Year to the readers of Anecdotal Evidence.

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