The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 19, 2018

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The Life of the Mind
James V. Schall, S.J. - 04/04/08

This essay is excerpted from James V. Schall, The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking, just released in paperback from ISI Books.

Some years ago, in 1979, when I first began teaching at Georgetown, I happened to read in class something by Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer and philosopher. I no longer recall quite what I read, though I am habitually prepared to read something by Johnson at the drop of a hat. Most days, I try to read for myself something from his unfailing wisdom. At any rate, several months after that initial encounter I received in the mail, from Florida, a package that contained a 1931 reprint of a book originally printed in the year 1799.

The book was James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D. This two-volume-in-one book was found by a student in that 1979 class in some used bookstore—used bookstores, I am going to insist here, are places to be haunted by young students as almost the equivalent of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, for they are indeed usually full of unexpected treasures, if you know what to look for. The particular book I had been sent, as a blue-inked stamp on its title page informs us, once was housed in St. Paul’s High School Library in St. Petersburg, Florida. Surely any high school or university library that gets rid of such a marvelous book deserves to lose, if not its accreditation, its reputation! I think of this incident each year when I notice what basic books—say, Aristotle’s Ethics or Plato’s Republic—students sell back to the university bookstore as used, certain signs of intellectual failure on the part of the students selling them back. I would add that worthless books should be sold back—the trick is to know the difference.

Let me here provide some reflections on books—on acquiring them, on keeping them, on reading them, and on re-reading them. Never forget C. S. Lewis’s perceptive remark that if you have only read a great book once, you have not read it at all (though you must read it once in order to be able to read it again). In his An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis wrote, “Those who read great works . . . will read the same work ten, twenty, or thirty times during the course of their life.” Furthermore, he adds, “We must never assume that we know exactly what is happening when anyone else reads a book.” The same book can move another’s will and understanding differently than it does our own. We ourselves are receptive to different books at different times in our lives. It is quite possible for one to get nothing out of reading a book, whereas someone else, reading the same book, goes out and changes the world. Likewise we can be excited by reading a book that our friends find dull. There is a mystery here of how mind speaks to mind through reading.

But back to Samuel Johnson and one of his statements about books, a passage on which I often reflect. In his immensely insightful book, Boswell recalls several observations that Johnson made on Monday, September 22, 1777. “Dr. Johnson advised me to-day,” Boswell begins,

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