Friday, July 07, 2017

`So Much Knowledge About So Many Things'

The four fat volumes of Robert Southey’s Common-Place Book (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1849) arrived at the circulation desk in a cloud of dust and paper flakes. The librarian sneezed. The books smell, naturally, of old books, just as old dogs smell of dog. The covers are green-turning-auburn, and the bookplates say:


The latter is a village on Loch Fyne, Argyll, in the west of Scotland. Above the bookplates are small yellow labels:

M. Ogle and Co.
1 Royal Exchange Sq.

That would be Maurice Ogle (1832-1871), about whom I know nothing else. The commonplace books are edited by John Wood Warter, B.D. (bachelor of divinity), an antiquarian and divine, and Southey’s son-in-law. The four volumes were acquired by the Fondren Library in 1928 and haven’t circulated since 1939.  I’ve never read deeply in Southey, but any man’s commonplace book ought to be worth investigating as oblique autobiography. It’s heavy with passages taken from theologians whose names I’ve never heard and whose dogmatics I don’t understand. I have no intention of reading or even scanning each of its 2,900 pages, but I am poking around in search of interesting tidbits. Here’s a good one from the fourth volume, under the heading “Wood-lice [I grew up calling them “pill bugs” or “potato bugs”; kids today call them “roly-polys”], how to be taken”:

“The best way is swallowing them alive, which is very easily and conveniently done, for they naturally roll themselves up on being touched, and thus form a sort of smooth pill, which slips down the throat without being tasted. This is the securest way of having all their virtues.”

Authorship is attributed to Sir John Hill (1714-1775), who, if the patient is unable to swallow wood-lice alive, recommends “tying them up [the wood-lice, that is, not the patients] in a thin canvas cloth, and suspending them within a covered vessel, over the steam of hot spirit of wine; they are soon killed by it, and rendered friable.” Hill finishes by describing their medicinal value: “Often of service in asthmas, and great good has been sometimes done by a long course of them, in disorders of the eyes.” Just last month, by happy coincidence, Theodore Dalrymple published “Woodlice Wisdom,” which begins:

“There is no better or more salutary way of reminding yourself of your own profound and irreparable ignorance than to browse in a well-stocked secondhand bookshop. It is also a way to overcome misanthropy, if to such you are inclined, for you cannot help but admire your fellow beings who have, over the centuries, accumulated so much knowledge about so many things.”

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