Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Xerxes, De Quincey, and the Mortality of Books

Conrad Roth at Varieties of Unreligious Experience offers a beautiful quote from Thomas De Quincey today:

In my youthful days, I never entered a great library, suppose of one hundred thousand volumes, but my predominant feeling was one of pain and disturbance of mind—not much unlike that which drew tears from Xerxes, on viewing his immense army, and reflecting that in one hundred years not one soul would remain alive. To me, with respect to the books, the same effect would be brought about by my own death. Here, said I, are one hundred thousand books, the worst of them capable of giving me some pleasure and instruction; and before I have had time to extract the honey from one-twentieth of this hive, in all likelihood I shall be summoned away.

Furthermore, I had myself ascertained that to read a duodecimo volume, in prose, of four hundred pages—all skipping being barred, and the rapid reading which belongs to the vulgar interest of a novel—was a very sufficient work for one day. Consequently, three hundred and sixty-five per annum—that is (with a very small allowance for the claims of life on one's own account and that of one's friends), one thousand for every triennium; that is, ten thousand for thirty years—will be as much as a man who lives for that only can hope to accomplish. From the age of twenty to eighty, therefore—if a man were so unhappy as to live to eighty—the utmost he could hope to travel through would be twenty thousand volumes,—a number not, perhaps, above five per cent* of what the mere current literature of Europe would accumulate in that period of years. Now, from this amount of twenty thousand make a deduction on account of books of larger size, books to be studied and books to be read slowly and many times over (as all works in which the composition is a principal part of their pretensions)—allow a fair discount for such deductions, and the twenty thousand will perhaps shrink to eight or five thousand.

— Thomas de Quincey, 'On Languages' (1823)

No comments: