Tuesday, May 31, 2016

`If a Man Has a Mind to Prance'

A reader’s reverie: possessing every book one has owned across a lifetime, not for their monetary worth but as a form of oblique autobiography. One loses, sells and gives away hundreds of volumes. Because I’ve always been a reader rather than a collector, I’ve owned few valuable books. Years ago, purely for their liquidity, I bought several Thomas Wolfe first editions, a first of On the Road, and another first of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. I turned all into quick cash, and feel as though I didn’t own them so much as briefly rent them. Treating books like so many cases of breakfast cereal still leaves me feeling queasy, and I try to assuage the uneasiness by recalling the books I’ve given to friends, young readers and public libraries. Dr. Johnson is my exemplar. On this date, May 31, in 1769, Johnson writes to Thomas Warton (1728-1790):

“Many years ago when I used to read in the library of your College I promised to recompense the College for that permission by adding to their books a Baskervilles Virgil. I have now sent it, and desire you to reposite it on the Shelves in my Name.”

 John Baskerville (1706-1775) was not, as I had assumed, Virgil’s translator but a printer of fine editions. His Virgil was published in 1757. Warton was a Fellow of Trinity College and later Poet Laureate. In 1754, while Johnson was at work on his Dictionary, Warton gave the lexicographer permission to use the college library for his research. Fifteen years later, Johnson wished to express his gratitude. Of the presentation copy, Boswell tells us:

“It has this inscription [written by Warton] in a blank-leaf: `Hunc librum D.D. Samuel Johnson, eo quod hic loci studiis interdum vacaret.’ Of this library, which is an old Gothic room, he was very fond. On my observing to him that some of the modern libraries of the University were more commodious and pleasant for study, as being more spacious and airy, he replied, `Sir, if a man has a mind to prance, he must study at Christ-Church and All-Souls.”

My new resolution: cultivating “a mind to prance.”

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