Off the Shelf Remarks

Paying a holiday visit to a used bookstore, I reluctantly passed up a couple of enticing volumes. It was, I decided, better to conserve my depleted funds and catch up on the already prodigious stack accumulating by my bedside.

First up was Erasmus and the Age of Reformation by Johan Huizinga, author of The Waning of the Middle Ages—long a staple of college history classes. I read Waning as an undergraduate as did my father before me. Huizinga’s work on Erasmus is one of those rare pieces of engaging intellectual biography: sympathetic yet critical, analytical but full of personal and social insights. One passage discusses the Dutch humanist’s innovative role in the rise of print culture:

Erasmus is one of the first who, after his name was established, worked directly and continually for the press…. It enabled him to exercise an immediate influence on the reading public of Europe such as had emanated from none before him; to become a focus of culture.

It was as if Erasmus had come of age in the world of the internet and social media. He was a marketer of ideas as much as a scholar, and in that way very different from Renaissance figures even a generation before. Huizinga also points out the downside of this. The brilliant but vain intellectual was distracted by incessant controversy and much of his voluminous writing was of transitory value, though his philosophical “journalism” nevertheless had a major impact on the age in which he lived.

A truly obscure gem came my way earlier this year: Roman Road (1951) by George Lamb, sent to me by a longtime friend. Though forgotten today, Lamb was one of a legion of English converts during the Catholic Literary Revival (1860-1960) who penned highly articulate and insightful memoirs. I’ll quote one passage in particular, since it closely mirrors my own experience.

Speaking of Cardinal Newman’s famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Lamb writes, “I had heard of it as a great religious autobiography, and I had thought that I should read it. I read about thirty pages and could go no further.” It seemed, he says, no more than the musings of a sheltered academic preoccupied with obscure controversies. But taking the Apologia up again sometime later

At once the whole book, and the whole predicament behind the book, became alive. The language no longer sounded pompous, but as though common speech had of necessity grown enlarged by the breath of a lofty spirit; the tone, no longer querulous, seemed to express the sufferings of the most sensitive spirit… And when I read of those two luminous certainties, God and the human soul, of whose ultimate value the writer alone was convinced, I felt that I had at last in my loneliness discovered a friend.

Other books in my pile include literary criticism by C. S. Lewis, art theory by Jacques Barzun, and some philosophical history by Ernst Cassirer, which I’ll review in future posts.

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