Saturday, September 25, 2021

'You Can Never Be Wise'

“Let me know what English books you read for your entertainment. You can never be wise unless you love reading.” 

Solemn words, avuncular advice, delivered in school-marmish tones – words many of us would like to believe but our experience tells us otherwise. There’s only a desultory connection between books read and wisdom gained. We all know well-read fools and near-saints who have hardly cracked open a volume. I don’t remember ever reading a book with the explicit aim of acquiring wisdom. That’s not how books and wisdom work.


Dr. Johnson is writing a letter to Francis Barber (c. 1742-1801) on this date, September 25, in 1770. Barber was born a slave in Jamaica and brought by his master to England when he was a child. The terms of his master’s will freed Barber, and Johnson hired him as a servant in 1752. The letter dates from the time when Johnson sent Barber to Bishops Stortford Grammar School in Hertfordshire. Johnson writes in the letter, “Do not imagine that I shall forget or forsake you, for if when I examine you, I find that you have not lost your time, you shall want no encouragement.” When Johnson died in 1784 his will named Barber his primary beneficiary, leaving him an annuity of £70 – more than $12,300 by today’s valuation.


Johnson’s first sentence of the two quoted at the top seems the more precise and honest. The best books entertain, assuming we understand that word to mean give pleasure, aesthetic and otherwise. An entertaining book need not be intended as a distraction, a way to kill time. On another occasion, when not admonishing his friend Barber, Johnson writes in the January 15, 1751, issue of The Rambler:  


“We see that volumes may be perused, and perused with attention, to little effect; and that maxims of prudence, or principles of virtue, may be treasured in the memory without influencing the conduct. Of the numbers that pass their lives among books, very few read to be made wiser or better, apply any general reproof of vice to themselves, or try their own manners by axioms of justice. They purpose either to consume those hours for which they can find no other amusement, to gain or preserve that respect which learning has always obtained; or to gratify their curiosity with knowledge which, like treasure buried and forgotten, is of no use to others or themselves.”

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

I've just today (9/25) finished reading Sir Harold Nicholson's "The Development of English Biography" (Hogarth Press, 1927), which I found interesting. He believed that the two greatest biographies in English are Boswell on Johnson and Lockhart on Scott. He also has nice things to say about Strachey's "Eminent Victorians" (1918) and "Queen Victoria" (1921), the latter of which he is quite the fan. In my experience, critics tend not to be quite that enthusiastic about Strachey. Nicholson's is an interesting book.