Amidst the Lumber of Libraries Seldom Visited

Of many writers who filled their age with wonder, and whose  names we find celebrated in the books of their contemporaries, the works are now no longer to be seen, or are seen only amidst the lumber of libraries which are seldom visited.—Samuel Johnson

I just finished reading Idler essay No. 59, which deals with neglected books. Apparently things haven’t changed much since the eighteenth century. Browsing the library one sees rows of dated tomes on mediocre entertainers and politicians destined for the landfill. Of them Johnson would say: “The great and popular are very freely applauded; but all soon grow weary of echoing to each other a name which has no other claim to notice, but that many mouths are pronouncing it at once…. He that lays his labours out upon temporary subjects, easily finds readers, and quickly loses them; for what should make the book valued when the subject is no more?” It is not simply that the subjects themselves are temporary, but their treatment is forgettable. Thoughtless authorship can turn even Socrates or William Shakespeare into dumbed-down celebrities. By contrast, explains Johnson, “He that writes upon general principles or delivers universal truths, may hope to be often read, because his work will be equally useful at all times and in every country.”

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