Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Vanity of Human Hopes & The Abuse of the Printing Press


This summer I went to a gigantic used book sale. How gigantic? Books filled at least eight large rooms, some of which would probably be better described as "halls." Many of the books were hard to find and out of print, and nearly all cost under $5.

And yet, in what should have been heaven for a bibliophile like myself, I found only two books that I thought worth acquiring: a cheap copy of Meier Helmbrecht, and Critics of the Enlightenment. When I left the sale with only two books in hand, I realized that there was a reason why most of those books were out of print: Most of them weren't very good. How many of those authors had wasted their time producing mediocre books, whether in the hope of writing the next great novel or of making an original contribution to scholarship?

This thought reminded me of a few aphorisms by Nicolás Gómez Dávila:
Literature dies not because nobody writes, but when everybody writes. (#1,256)

The abuse of the printing press is due to the scientific method and the expressionist aesthetic. To the former because it allows any mediocre person to write a correct and useless monograph, and to the latter because it legitimizes the effusions of any fool. (#1,586)

This phenomenon is, of course, not new, and predates the 20th century's expressionist aesthetic. Here is what Dr. Johnson had to say about the glut of worthless books filling libraries in his day:
No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a publick library; for who can see the wall crouded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditation, and accurate enquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue, and preserved only to encrease 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?

--Samuel Johnson, The Rambler 106 (Saturday, March 23, 1751)

As far as we know, some medieval monks probably made the same complaint as they copied books by hand in their scriptoria. And they would not have been completely wrong, even in a time when books were precious rarities. In every age, there is an abundance of information, but so little wisdom.

(Hat tips: Michael Gilleland; make sure to click through to see the amusing photo accompanying the quotation from Dr. Johnson. Picture from book lovers never go to bed alone.)
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