Thursday, December 04, 2014

Samuel Johnson on the Vanity of Human Hopes

Samuel Johnson bust (in the National Portrait Gallery, London)
"No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a publick library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditation, and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue . . . ."*
(The Rambler, No. 106. SATURDAY, MARCH 23, 1751.)
Heh. Yes, public libraries are a monument to literary vanity which has ended in forgotten books and authors which predominate in the thousands of miles of public library shelving. (The Library of Congress has almost 130 million items on about 530 miles of shelves.)

I've been reading Samuel Johnson's essays in The Rambler. Some of the entries are interesting as sidelights (like Johnson's take on the proper scope and pitfalls of pastoral poetry). But, Johnson isn't famous for nothing. There's a surprising amount of wisdom vividly expressed. Like the quotation above.

Most of what he writes isn't surprising or new, for as Johnson says in Rambler, No. 2:
"What is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught; and what is known is rejected, because it is not sufficiently considered that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed."
[emphasis added]
Johnson does a lot of great reminding. Which, when one comes to think of it, is what good blogging is about. Johnson published his Rambler opinion pieces twice a week.
*rest of the quotation: "and preserved only to increase the pomp of learning, without considering how many hours have been wasted in vain endeavours, how often imagination has anticipated the praises of futurity, how many statues have risen to the eye of vanity, how many ideal converts have elevated zeal, how often wit has exulted in the eternal infamy of his antagonists, and dogmatism has delighted in the gradual advances of his authority, the immutability of his decrees, and the perpetuity of his power?"


MAX Redline said...

Actually, I think that today public libraries (at least in Multnomah County) are place where people go online to watch porn, and homeless folks park in the restrooms.

Personally, I've never found public libraries especially useful; if you want, say, field studies on the locomotor patterns of baboons or colobus monkeys, you go to university libraries. Of course, when I was designing habitats for those species, we didn't have this internet thing....

T. D. said...

You're right about public libraries becoming more and more a computer magnet than a book magnet. Which makes Johnson's point all the more poignant.

And certainly the internet allows almost complete picking and choosing of parts of published items that the reader considers useful. No more having to scan through the index or thumb through the chapters for the part of the book you are interested in. Talk about deflating to an author who worked so hard on all those parts no one cares about. Power has definitely shifted almost entirely to the reader.

It used to be with books like it is with video teases about learning the one secret to survive the coming this or that. They keep talking on and on until the viewer finally realizes there will be no substance forthcoming. You used to have to really look through a book to determine if it had what you wanted (assuming you were reading for information rather than for pleasure).

MAX Redline said...

I spent a ton of money at a nickel a page, back in the day, copying relevant field studies. Now a lot of them can be found online.

But I copied the whole things, to peruse at leisure - though granted, at times when wading through an author's views I sometimes wondered why I'd wasted those nickels. Still, there were insights to be gleaned from the descriptives.

T. D. said...

Max, I have a bunch of 5 cent (and 10 cent!) copies of parts of books and even a few full books that I made in the day. I still do copies today but only of microfilm of old newspaper bits regarding family history or newspaper information not online (like the Oregonian's circulation statements published in October). I tip my hat to the copy machine.

MAX Redline said...

Ya, I did a full copy of The Natural History of the African Elephant because it was out of print. Still cost a lot, but far less than the book itself, which now runs to around $350.

T. D. said...

You at least got a bargain. Most of mine are now available at Amazon for $10 to $20. But there are some that either aren't available or now cost in the $40 or $50 range. Though that really doesn't matter since I wanted to read them then and used them then. So, as my dad always says when we complain about an item going on sale after we bought it, "If it was worth it to you, it was worth the price you paid." Just because someone else got a better deal doesn't mean you didn't get a good deal.

T. D. said...

Do you get that "Please prove you're not a robot" word verification box? I have "no" marked on "show word verification" in my settings, and I never enter anything and still get my comments posted. But, then I'm the blog owner so that may make a difference.

I need to check with blogger on what the deal is on that.

MAX Redline said...

Just because someone else got a better deal doesn't mean you didn't get a good deal

I like the way he thinks. Back when Powell's Books was a little hole in the wall, the old guy gave me books for free in exchange for helping him move shelves around and whatnot. It was a nice little arrangement. He figured it was a good exchange, as did I.

I inventoried my books last year and found that on the open market, they're now worth several thousand dollars in total. Of course, most are now out of print, but valued highly due to the information therein. Mine are mostly technical, but signed first editions. They make people with the right background drool.

As for your Captcha box, yes, I see that every time. It's a minor irritant; perhaps an "enhancement". I don't use it on my site, but it's possible that Google has made it a default.

T. D. said...

Signed first editions! Good investing, Max.

Well, I "complained" to blogger, but they say they don't respond to individual complaints. So, I'm not sure if anything will happen. There is definitely a "yes/no" option on it. And I've chosen "no". I dislike those things. If I can, I will have it turned off.

As I said, I never fill them in, but since I'm the site owner it doesn't make a difference. Does it not let you post unless you fill it in? I can't test it.

MAX Redline said...

I've not tried, TD -until now. let's see if it works.

MAX Redline said...

It does!

T. D. said...

Yay! It's good to know one can just ignore the stupid thing.