Tuesday, October 09, 2018

'He Could at Any Time Make Such Good Ones'

I can read anywhere, though a technician recently forbid me to bring Nabokov’s Gogol into the MRI chamber. I carry a book wherever I may be required to sit still and be quiet. Reading is the other half of writing, like a conjoined twin. I’ve served on several job-search committees and one of my standard questions, regardless of the position, is: “What are you reading?” If the candidate has an adequate and promptly delivered answer, I might add: “Which book have you most recently reread?” That avoids the vapid responses to the more conventional question: “What’s your favorite book?” If they scoff at the very idea of rereading any book, they’re blackballed.

On this date, Oct. 9, in 1773, Boswell and Johnson are on the island of Coll (or Col, as Boswell spells it) in the Hebrides, where they visit a lead mine (among W.H. Auden’s enduring obsessions). Boswell and a companion climb a great rock, described in a passage four days earlier in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785):  

“We passed by a place where there is a very large stone, I may call it a ROCK—‘a vast weight for Ajax.’ The tradition is, that a giant threw such another stone at his mistress, up to the top of a hill, at a small distance; and that she in return, threw this mass down to him. It was all in sport. Malo me petit lasciva puella. [Virgil’s Eclogues: “Galatea, saucy girl, pelts me with an apple.”]

Johnson remains on terra firma, occupying himself sensibly, reading Of the Nature and Use of Lots (1619) by Thomas Gataker, a volume reprinted as recently as 2008 under the title The Nature and Uses of Lotteries. Boswell writes:

“When we descried him from above, he had a most eremitical appearance; and on our return told us, he had been so much engaged by Gataker, that he had never missed us. His avidity for variety of books, while we were in Col, was frequently expressed; and he often complained that so few were within his reach. Upon which I observed to him, that it was strange he should complain of want of books, when he could at any time make such good ones.”

Boswell seldom misses an opportunity to kiss Johnson’s ass, though it’s a failing easy to forgive. It’s reassuring to know Johnson is a fellow sufferer of abibliophobia. We are not alone.

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