Sunday, March 23, 2014

`Don't Arsk Why!'

For 50 cents at our branch library I picked up a paperback of John Lennon’s Collected Works – that is, the Signet compendium edition of In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works (1965). Almost half a century ago I bought the same book. On the cover is a drawing of Lennon holding a fountain pen like a guitar. He stands on a podium on which is written: “Was $5 in hardcover. Now 95¢. Don’t arsk why! Buy!” Presumably this represents Liverpudlian dialect. The price for so slender a volume in the mid-sixties is steep (35 or 50 cents would have been likelier for a non-Beatles title). Lennon’s books are nonsense of the sub-Edward Lear variety, and critics seemed impressed that a rock and roller could compose a complete sentence. The more deluded among them likened the books to Finnegans Wake. The rudimentary drawings recall Thurber’s and those Quentin Blake fashioned for some of Roald Dahl’s books. Promotional copy on the back cover says: “From America to Australia, from teen to Queen, everybody’s acclaiming the pop-heartiest of them all, the madcap of the longhair set, John Lennon.” I bought the book for my youngest son, age 11, a virulent Beatles fan. 

In The Rambler #106, published on this date, March 23, in 1751, Dr. Johnson meditates on the “fictions of opinion” and the delusory ambitions of authors. When not merely ridiculous, anticipations of literary immortality are comically heartbreaking. In one grand, ceaselessly deferred sentence, Johnson asks: 

“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a publick library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditation, and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue, and preserved only to increase the pomp of learning, without considering how many hours have been wasted in vain endeavours, how often imagination has anticipated the praises of futurity, how many statues have risen to the eye of vanity, how many ideal converts have elevated zeal, how often wit has exulted in the eternal infamy of his antagonists, and dogmatism has delighted in the gradual advances of his authority, the immutability of his decrees, and the perpetuity of his power?”


marly youmans said...

That's a strong reproach to writers! But I would say to Johnson that if the writer joyed in the attempt, that he (and I suppose it almost always would have been a he in that year) may have grown in understanding and lived a larger life than he might have otherwise. That a book be placed on the shelf is not the only result of writing--and perhaps, in the end, it is not the most important one, at least to a writer who joys in making a work.

Guy Walker said...

No, not Liverpuddlian dialect. Cod English of a generic kind more likely.

(An Englishman)