Monday, September 7, 2009

Shutting Out the Cares and Interruptions of Mankind

There's something about the book business that few people outside publishing and bookstores know, something that can sometimes be made to happen with just a phone call, something so wonderfully generous as to be all but unimaginable unless one is lucky enough to be in on it. Sometimes, if you ask, they give you books. Imagine! Don't be too envious, those of you so unlucky as to not work in a bookstore. (We pay, in other ways, for our few perks. Trust me.) I don't entirely understand the process, nor can I quite explain the rationale, but if one asks politely, through the proper channels from buyer to publisher's representative, usually, there are munificent publishers who will send a copy of some beautiful, brand new book to any humble bookseller who thinks to beg it of them. Doesn't matter that in so doing the publisher is likely to gain little more than gratitude. The assumption, I think, is that the bookseller will exert whatever little influence he or she might have to sell the title to a wider audience. Now, copies sent out for proper review, to critics and academics and the like, can be a justified expense, even if the individual books are sold along unread and unreviewed. This, as has been explained to me by my husband, who used to be in the USPS, and who specialized in managing what that revered institution euphemistically insisted on calling "bulk mail," which all the rest of the world knows as shopping, fruitcakes and junk, is established marketing practice. To accept even a slight return on the free distribution of samples, is assumed to be a great success. By this same logic, evidently, even one brief and obscure review justifies hundreds of books distributed for free. There's considerable research behind this. Unfathomable to me, this idea giving good things away, but hardly my place, as a recent beneficiary, to question the wisdom of, in this instance, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

A new buyer at the bookstore, in fact my work-husband, J., now taking on yet another responsibility, knows me so well by now that, coming across a new edition Johnson in a Harvard Press catalogue, he didn't even have to ask if I would want such a book. (How could anyone not love the man?!) And so, just this week, he came to the Used Books desk, wreathed in smiles, and from behind his back, presented me, sight unseen, with Samuel Johnson: Selected Writings: A Tercentenary Celebration, edited by Peter Martin. Just last year I read Martin's biography of Johnson, and enjoyed it. Now I have a beautiful new book of nearly five hundred, closely printed pages of Johnson's best, with an excellent introduction, already read, by the editor, in which he again asserts the proud place of Johnson in English literature, his deep and abiding genius, and the disgraceful neglect of Johnson's best work by even the most devoted readers of Boswell's "Life." Professor Martin has proved himself again, a man very much after my own heart.

One of the all but insurmountable difficulties of trying to get people to read Johnson proper in recent years has been the inexcusable absence of readily available, well organized and annotated, and affordable editions or selections. Great scholars have been toiling for decades now, making a definitive edition of his works. I of course can not afford even the individual volumes of this to date, unless they get remaindered and turn up stray on a bargain table. Still, I am comforted to know of the project's continued existence, and the happy results for future students. Other than these rare and weighty volumes though, there have been for some time only the clumsiest of paperbacks in print. So to have in my hands this handsome hardcover, with selections of Johnson's prose taken from the most definitive edition, and to have it gratis from the publisher! This is an unexpected treat!

I read already in it essays unknown to me; one from the Adventurer, Number 39, March 20, 1753, on "Sleep," that I did not resist tonight, even as I ought to have been going to sleep myself. Oh, and so many others I must read either again, or for the first time.

I picked, to read first, an unfamiliar essay from the Rambler, Number 89, January 22, 1751: "Dangers of 'airy gratifications' and lonely fantasies." Johnson might have been looking right at me as he wrote it. I was a little mortified, as he doubtless meant me to be, in seeing myself so nakedly exposed.

"The dreamer retires to his apartments, shuts out the cares and interruptions of mankind, and abandons himself to his own fancy: new worlds rise up before him, one image is followed by another, and a long succession of delights dances round him. He is at last called back to life by nature, or by custom, and enters peevish into society, because he can not model it to his own will."

Oh, dear.

Yet for all his stern disapprobation, Johnson, as his good editor has been at pains to point out, was the largest and kindest of souls, come to the familiar failings of the lazy likes of me. With Johnson, forgiveness always seems to follow. He closes his essay thus:

"Such is the difference between great and amiable characters; with protectors we are safe, with companions we are happy."

With my new collection of Samuel Johnson, unearned by me, a gift from my dear J., The good representative of The Belknap Press, and Peter Martin, I am again happy in my companions.

No comments:

Post a Comment