Saturday, June 10, 2017

`To Know What Books Have Treated of It'

“Hardened grown-ups, when asked for information, may brazenly supply it, right or wrong; but rather seldom resort to a courageous, `I don’t know.’ The confession is something of a feat in itself, since to know we do not know is next best to knowing.”

And yet experts, when I hear them on the radio or read them online, reliably and confidently supply answers I could never supply to a vast range of questions. I’m with Guy Davenport, who said of his childhood (and adult) taste in books: “What I liked in reading was to learn things I didn’t know.” Many people, I suspect, if they read at all, do so to confirm what they already think they know. Davenport said he wrote not for critics but for “people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.”

The author of the passage at the top is Walter de la Mare, and the book is Early One Morning in the Spring (1935). He continues the thought above: “Or second best, perhaps, if we remember Dr. Johnson’s habit when he found himself in a library unfamiliar to him, of quietly browsing from title page to title page. When his lynx-eyed henchman observed him so engaged, and enquired why, he replied that in future he would know where what he wanted to know would be at his disposal.”

De la Mare is recalling Boswell’s account of the visit he, Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds made to the home of Richard Owen Cambridge on April 18, 1775. Boswell was already acquainted with Cambridge, whom he introduced to Johnson in the library. With pleasantries out of the way, Johnson “ran eagerly to one side of the room intent on poring over the backs [spines] of the books.” Boswell quotes Reynolds as saying, “He runs to the books as I do to the pictures: but I have the advantage. I can see much more of the pictures than he can of the books.” (See Reynolds’ portrait of Johnson reading.) A cultivated and courteous man, Cambridge says to Johnson:

“Dr. Johnson, I am going with your pardon, to accuse myself, for I have the same custom which I perceive you have. But it seems odd that one should have such a desire to look at the back of books.” Boswell observes that Johnson, “ever ready for contest, instantly started from his reverie, wheeled about and answered”:

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.”

In my head I carry around maps of a dozen libraries and bookstores, some of which no longer exist.

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