“One of the peculiarities which distinguish the present age is the multiplication of books. Every day brings new advertisements of literary undertakings, and we are flattered with repeated promises of growing wise on easier terms than our progenitors.”
Samuel Johnson wrote that almost a quarter-millennium ago, in The Idler for Dec. 1, 1759. He would be staggered and appalled by the tsunami of new titles, approaching 200,000, published annually in the United States, and even more in the United Kingdom. He would be more violently staggered and appalled by those who point to such statistics as evidence of flourishing literacy. This represents sheer cant, which his dictionary defines as “A whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms.” Also, “Barbarous jargon.” His next paragraph in the Idler essay makes it clear:
“How much either happiness or knowledge is advanced by this multitude of authors, it is not very easy to decide.”
Johnson, in fact, had no difficulty deciding. I was in one of the chain bookstores last week, shopping for board books for a colleague of my wife who recently had a baby. I relied on the taste of my sons when they were younger – Good Dog, Carl; Good Night, Gorilla; Good Night, Baby! ; Touch and Feel Farm.
I seldom visit such stores, or any bookstores for that matter. I wandered about, browsing with nothing in mind and finding precisely that – nothing. Not once was I tempted to make a purchase. I wondered at all the seeming bounty – tens of thousands of titles, and almost nothing worth reading. It was like visiting a friend who has cable television. It made me grateful for my home library which contains barely a fraction of the bookstore’s stock yet is so much deeper and more sustaining, a collection assembled across a life, lovingly tended like a garden, a work in progress, like its owner. Later in Idler #85, Johnson writes:
“The authors that in any nation last from age to age are very few, because there are very few that have any other claim to notice than that they catch hold on present curiosity, and gratify some accidental desire, or produce some temporary conveniency.”