Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fat Horace & My Big Print Pope

Recently, I had Homer, our bookstore's Espresso Book Machine, make me some Horace. (How much fun was that? Just me? Really? Fine. I amuse myself.) Frankly, I don't now remember what brought me to Horace, but I had decided, by the Gods, I needed some more. I had a not unsatisfactory newish book of modern poets translating some of the Odes. More interesting as an exercise and as an anthology than as a translation of Horace. I also had access to the truly hideous prose Horace currently available in the Loeb Library -- horrible, literal, mingy little book. And finally, I had, foolishly, a little Latin Horace with just a key etc., that I ridiculously thought I might be able to read with translations and a dictionary to hand and so on. (Scratch that last ambition, by the bye. Not going to happen. Maybe in retirement, I should live so long and the bookstore not ever go under.) So specifically what I wanted was the Odes and Epistles, more than the Satires, in English other than new. What I really wanted was Horace by way of Dr. Johnson's favorite Classics scholar, Richard Bentley. (I ended up reprinting and reading some scholarly essays , and a fat, two volume life of the prickly Dr. Bentley of Cambridge into the bargain -- go figure -- but that for another time.) After a thorough scan of the database, the nearest Horace I found in English was a fat little thing, primarily translated by one Philip Francis, D. D., but a few diverse other hands in as well, and including all of Bentley's notes. The EBM reprint promised to be a substantial, if smallish object in two volumes, measuring no more than six and a half by four and a half, but with close to 600 pages.

After printing the Bentley essays and James Henry Monk's biography of same in two biggish books, Homer made me my Horace, but split him into two volumes, just not presumably into the two volumes as originally divided. In fact, Volume One ended up having more than three quarters of the total text and Volume Two came in looking like a supplemental pamphlet of maybe two hundred. Very weird. Moreover, Volume Two actually starts, quite arbitrarily, in the middle of something already in the first volume of the Google Book; twenty some pages reprinted in common between them. So strange. "The Art of Poetry" , and the long Appendix of "Translations of various odes, etc., by Ben Jonson, etc.," that last et cetera including Pope and Dryden and even, yes, our Dr. Bentley, constituting nearly whole of the brief second volume.

No, I don't imagine anyone finds all this remotely as interesting as I do. (Can't tell you this is going to pick up any time soon, to be honest, but thanks for soldiering on with me, friend.) Don't trouble about Horace, or Bentley, or any of that just this minute though. Why, I ask, would the EBM database produce such a strangely split thing? If it was scanned into Google Books as two volumes, surely they did not originally look like this, with roughly twenty five pages in common and the break in the middle of a poem?!

Anyway, I've been enjoying my Horace, in all his many shapes and sizes. Most immediately accessible and familiar Latin poet bar none, for me at least, even if embarrassingly only in translation. Total cost of my Horace project of reprints on the EBM at the bookstore to date? Five, no, six volumes, and a total of less than fifty bucks.

I'm telling you, this machine has honestly changed my reading life. Think about it. I'm in my third decade of working and hanging out in good bookstores. I've had access, all these years, to just about every kind of book; new and used, scholarly and pop, expensive and clearanced. Still. Never before, on little more than a whim of curiosity -- the very best kind of whim if one must suffer them, I find -- I can now pursue not just one Horace but many, and from him to his best English editor, notes know to Johnson, and some of the best translations, in and out of print, ever. Can you imagine collecting these books, even if they could be found at affordable prices?

And that brings me to my most recent acquisition by means of the mighty machine. Much the best thing I've done with the EBM has been to reprint great and classic letters. Horace here again, but also Cowper, and Thomas Gray, Miss Edgeworth, etc. One writer I've wanted but been frustrated in finding among the available Google Books has been Alexander Pope. Now, why, I would ask the mysterious spirits of American publishing? Pope's letters are in every list of great English letters. So why not reprinted? That, I can't answer. I can say that I have hesitated to have printed for me the one edition I found listed because, in looking at the available preview of the contents, I found that the book Google scanned was an edition so old as to have those damned long Ss, you know, the ones that read to contemporary eyes as a lower case f. Read two rather rare editions of Bacon when I couldn't find them printed any other way, back when, and just managed. (Can't read so much as a modern label on a ketchup-bottle while reading such old books, that's my advice, because any modern text and the eye immediately reverts to reading more normally. Most annoying.) I kept hoping to find something of Pope's letters in a more modern edition, but no. So, just this week I finally broke down and ordered the Pope with long Ss.

What I was not prepared for was the size of the volume the machine made. This thing is crazy big. Just look at it! In fact, the format is so large, that the covers won't even come all the way out to the edge of the pages. Cardboard's not long enough! Never in the dozens of books I've had printed to date have I ever seen the like. Biggest book off the EBM ever. I've been assured, formated any bigger and the thing would not have printed at all. Damn.

Above is the title page, just to give you some idea of the charm of these old things, even just as paperback reprints. Very nice. The size of the thing, though! But wait! I'm sure that this formatting is just some kind of data entry error at Google Books, or the EBM company or what have you. Looking at the inside of the book, there is no way this book was ever this big before. Everything about the layout and font, to my eye, suggests something, if anything so small as to be inexpensive enough for students, back in the day, consequently, so small as to be quite hard on older eyes lie mine, even with my powerful new split-level prescription. So, unlike the weird, but ultimately unimportant and arbitrary split in volumes one and two of the Horace in translation -- or my Laurel and Hardy Reprint as I've come affectionately to think of them -- this unexpectedly Big Print Pope, turns out to be a flat out blessing.

Remember the S that looks like an f? Turns out that that annoyance is actually made a bit easier if the words are freakin' HUGE. Who knew? So, here we have it, my first large print book to go with my new Phil Silvers bifocals.

And it really is worth it, whatever the format in which I finally found these letters. First time I open the book to actually read a letter, rather than to just goggle at in the ungainly thing, and I read the following:

"Now I talk of my dog, that I may not treat of a worse subject which my spleen tempts me to, I will give you some account of him; a thing not wholly unprecedented, since Montagne (to whom I am but a dog in comparison) has done the same thing of his cat."

And off we go in a truly delightful fashion. True, what I am actually reading looks more like, "... that I may not treat of a worfe fubject which my fpleen tempts me to..." -- how loopy is that to start? -- but still, grand good fun. (No, "fun," not "sun". You get used to it, for the most part, honest.)

Pope got in trouble for fixing up and editing his letters before publication. Critics thought that dishonest, I guess. Horace too sometimes is chided for writing what amounted to public letters to private, real persons and friends, but come now, do we care? I'm not reading either gentleman in order to write a paper. Both gentlemen are very good company, I find, even in translation, and or funny print. And both can are now mine -- and can be yours! -- for less than the price of a large lunch.

All hail Homer, says I, and good, ol' fat Horace, and wee Alexander Pope, the monkey, finally made large!

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