22 February 2017

Something of a Dinosaur

Keith Thomas, "Diary," London Review of Books,  June 10, 2010, pp. 36-37:
In the end, we all have to make excerpts from the books and documents we read. In the 16th and 17th centuries, scholars tended to read books in an extrapolatory way, selecting passages to be memorised or copied into common-place books. Sometimes they kept their excerpts in the order in which they came across them. More usually, they tried to arrange them under predetermined headings: virtues and vices, perhaps, or branches of knowledge. Properly organised, a good collection of extracts provided a reserve of quotations and aphorisms which could be used to support an argument or adorn a literary composition. As the historian Thomas Fuller remarked, ‘A commonplace book contains many notions in garrison, whence the owner may draw out an army into the field on competent warning.’
The truth is that I have become something of a dinosaur. Nowadays, researchers don’t need to read early printed books laboriously from cover to cover. They have only to type a chosen word into the appropriate database to discover all the references to the topic they are pursuing. I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity.

17 February 2017

A Double Wall of Centuries

James Russell Lowell, "Library of Old Authors", My Study Windows (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913), pp. 290-291:
What a sense of security in an old book which Time has criticised for us! What a precious feeling of seclusion in having a double wall of centuries between us and the heats and clamors of contemporary literature! How limpid seems the thought, how pure the old wine of scholarship that has been settling for so many generations in those silent crypts and Falernian amphorae of the Past! No other writers speak to us with the authority of those whose ordinary speech was that of our translation of the Scriptures; to no modern is that frank unconsciousness possible which was natural to a period when yet reviews were not; and no later style breathes that country charm characteristic of days ere the metropolis had drawn all literary activity to itself, and the trampling feet of the multitude had banished the lark and the daisy from the fresh privacies of language. Truly, as compared with the present, these old voices seem to come from the morning fields and not the paved thoroughfares of thought.

16 February 2017

An Inner Richness of the Soul

Lin Yutang, "The Importance of Loafing," The Importance of Living (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1938), p. 155:
No, the enjoyment of an idle life doesn't cost any money. The capacity for true enjoyment of idleness is lost in the moneyed class and can be found only among people who have a supreme contempt for wealth. It must come from an inner richness of the soul in a man who loves the simple ways of life and who is somewhat impatient with the business of making money. There is always plenty of life to enjoy for a man who is determined to enjoy it. If men fail to enjoy this earthly existence we have, it is because they do not love life sufficiently and allow it to be turned into a humdrum routine existence.

13 February 2017

Valentine's Day

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960), p. 169:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable.
Not unrelated:

10 February 2017

To What End Wouldst Thou Live Longer?

Robert Dodsley, The Economy of Human Life (DeLand, Florida: Clifford Anderson Owens, 1910), pp. 78-79:
Complain not with the fool of the shortness of thy time. Remember that with thy days thy cares are shortened. Take from the period of thy life the useless parts of it, and what remaineth? Take off the time of thine infancy, the second infancy of age, thy sleep, thy thoughtless hours, thy days of sickness, and even at the fullness of years, how few seasons hast thou truly numbered! He who gave thee life as a blessing, shortened it to make it more so. To what end would longer life have served thee? Wishest thou to have had an opportunity of more vices? As to the good, will not he who shortened thy span, be satisfied with the fruits of it?

To what end, O child of sorrow! wouldst thou live longer? To breathe, to eat, to see the world? All this thou hast done often already. Too frequent repetition, is it not monotonous? Or is it not superfluous? Wouldst thou improve thy wisdom and virtue? Alas! what are thou to know? Or who is it that shall teach thee? Badly thou employest the little thou hast; dare not therefore to complain that more is not given thee.

8 February 2017

Gathering Nectar

Madame Guyon, A Short Method of Prayer,  tr. A. W. Marston (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, & Searle, 1875), pp. 6-7:
Take the truth which has presented itself to you, and read two or three lines, seeking to enter into the full meaning of the words, and go on no further so long as you find satisfaction in them; leave the place only when it becomes insipid. After that, take another passage, and do the same, not reading more than half a page at once.

It is not so much from the amount read that we derive profit, as from the manner of reading. Those people who get through so much do not profit from it; the bees can only draw the juice from the flowers by resting on them, not by flying round them.
The original from the Moyen court et très-facile de faire oraison (Lyon: A. Briasson, 1686), pp. 7-8:
Vous prendrez votre vérité telle que vous la voudrez choisir, & vous en lirez ensuite deux ou trois lignes pour les digérer & goûter, tâchant d'en prendre le suc , & de vous tenir arrêté à l'endroit que vous lisez tant que vous y trouvez du goût, & ne passant point outre que cet endroit ne vous soit rendu insipide.

Après cela il faut en reprendre autant, & faire demême, ne lisant pas plus de demi-page à la fois. Ce n'est pas tant la quantité de la lecture qui profite que la manière de lire. Ces gens qui courent si fort, ne profitent pas, non plus que les abeilles ne peuvent tirer le suc des fleurs qu'en s'y reposant, & non en les parcourant.

6 February 2017

Substituting the Hovel for the Palace

Ralph Adams Cram, Walled Towns (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1919), p. 20:
The nineteenth-century superstition that life proceeds after an inevitable system of progressive evolution, so defiant of history, so responsible in great degree for the many delusions that made the [First World] war not only possible but inevitable, finds few now to do it honour. The soul is not forever engaged in the graceful industry of building for itself ever more stately mansions; it is quite as frequently employed in defiling and destroying those already built, and in substituting the hovel for the palace.

3 February 2017

Wilderness Survival

Maurice Francis Egan, Confessions of a Book-Lover (Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922), p. 61:
Who is more amusingly cheerful than Montaigne, who more amusingly wise, who so well bred and attractive, who knew the world better and took it only as the world? Give me the old volume of Montaigne and a loaf of bread — no Victrola singing to me in the wilderness ! — a thermos bottle, and one or two other things, and I can still spend the day in any wild place!

1 February 2017

A Fragmentary Ability

Albert Schweitzer, The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization, tr. C. T. Campion (London: A. & C. Black, 1923), pp. 21-22:
Human labour is organized and co-ordinated so that specialization may enable individuals to make the highest and most effective possible contribution. The results obtained are amazing, but the spiritual significance of the work for the worker suffers. There is no call upon the whole man, only upon some of his faculties, and this has a reflex effect upon his nature as a whole. The faculties which build up personality and are called out by comprehensive and varied tasks are ousted by the less comprehensive ones, which from this point of view are, in the general sense of the word, less spiritual. The artisan of to-day does not understand his trade as a whole in the way in which his predecessor did. He no longer learns, like the latter, to work the wood or the metal through all the stages of manufacture; many of these stages have already been carried out by men and machines before the material comes into his hands. Consequently his reflectiveness, his imagination, and his skill are no longer called out by ever varying difficulties in the work, and his creative and artistic powers are atrophied. In place of the normal self-consciousness which is promoted by work into the doing of which he must put his whole power of thought and his whole personality, there comes a self-satisfaction which is content with a fragmentary ability which, it may be admitted, is perfect, and this self-satisfaction is persuaded by its perfection in mastering details to overlook its imperfection in dealing with the whole.
A related post: Anonymous and Impersonal Serfdom

27 January 2017

Actively Suppressing Your Own Ability to Think

Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 81:
My efforts to read, comprehend, and write abstracts of twenty-eight academic journal articles per day required me to actively suppress my own ability to think, because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your understanding of an author’s argument come into focus. This can only slow you down. The quota demanded that I suppress as well my sense of responsibility to others — not just the author of an article but also the hapless users of InfoTrac, who might naïvely suppose that my abstract reflects the contents of that article. So the job required both dumbing down and a bit of moral reeducation. Now, it is probably true that every job entails some kind of mutilation. Working as an electrician, you breathe a lot of unknown dust in crawl spaces, your knees get bruised, your neck gets strained from looking up at the ceiling while installing lights or ceiling fans, and you get shocked regularly, sometimes while on a ladder. Your hands are sliced up from twisting wires together, handling junction boxes made out of stamped sheet metal, and cutting metal conduit with a hacksaw. But none of this damage touches the best part of yourself.
A related post: Hack Writers