Sunday, January 12, 2020

'A Term Implying Some Slight Contempt'

“Many useful and valuable books lie buried in shops and libraries, unknown and unexamined, unless some lucky compiler opens them by chance, and finds an easy spoil of wit and learning.”

The “lucky compiler” in this case is me. On the way home from work, with a small balance remaining on the gift card my oldest son gave me for Christmas, I stopped at Half-Price Books. I’ve learned from experience to keep my expectations minimal. You’re largely at the mercy of fellow readers who have unloaded unwanted books, usually with good reason. I’ve found treasure over the years but usually I leave empty-handed. On Friday I was lucky: Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time (Knopf, 2018) and Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection (eds. E.L. McAdam Jr. and George Milne, Pantheon, 1963).

In the latter, Johnson defines bookful as “full of notions gleaned from books; crouded [sic] with undigested knowledge”; bookish as “given to books; acquainted only with books. It is generally used contemptuously”; and booklearned as “versed in books, or literature: a term implying some slight contempt.”     

The sentence quoted at the top is from Johnson’s Idler essay published on this date, Jan. 12, in 1760.

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