Dr. Johnson on Why More is Not Better

Editor’s note: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) anticipated G.K. Chesterton in wit, girth, and wisdom. In a short essay penned for The Idler (Number 85 of December 1759) Johnson foresaw the weariness of our age with its explosion of cheap blogs and online articles. It was the weariness of Chesterton’s age with its explosion of cheap journals and short reviews. And it was the weariness of Johnson’s age with its explosion of cheap pamphlets and endless essays. Let us all attend the wisdom and concision of this master of English.

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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.

How much either happiness or knowledge is advanced by this multitude of authors, it is not very easy to decide. He that teaches us anything which we knew not before, is undoubtedly to be reverenced as a master. He that conveys knowledge by more pleasing ways, may very properly be loved as a benefactor; and he that supplies life with innocent amusement will be certainly caressed as a pleasing companion. But few of those who fill the world with books have any pretensions to the hope either of pleasing or instructing. They have often no other task than to lay two books before them, out of which they compile a third, without any new materials of their own, and with very little application of judgment to those which former authors have supplied.

That all compilations are useless I do not assert. Particles of science are often very widely scattered. Writers of extensive comprehension have incidental remarks upon topics very remote from the principal subject, which are often more valuable than formal treatises, and which yet are not known because they are not promised in the title. He that collects those under proper heads is very laudably employed, for, though he exerts no great abilities in the work, he facilitates the progress of others, and, by making that easy of attainment which is already written, may give some mind, more vigorous or more adventurous than his own, leisure for new thoughts and original designs. But the collections poured lately from the press have been seldom made at any great expense of time or inquiry, and therefore only serve to distract choice without supplying any real want. It is observed that “a corrupt society has many laws,” and I know not whether it is not equally true that an ignorant age has many books. When the treasures of ancient knowledge lie unexamined, and original authors are neglected and forgotten, compilers and plagiaries are encouraged, who give us again what we had before, and grow great by setting before us what our own sloth had hidden from our view.

Yet are not even these writers to be indiscriminately censured and rejected. Truth, like beauty, varies its fashions, and is best recommended by different dresses to different minds; and he that recalls the attention of mankind to any part of learning which time has left behind it, may be truly said to advance the literature of his own age. As the manners of nations vary, new topics of persuasion become necessary, and new combinations of imagery are produced; and he that can accommodate himself to the reigning taste may always have readers who perhaps would not have looked upon better performances. To exact of every man who writes that he should say something new would be to reduce authors to a small number; to oblige the most fertile genius to say only what is new would be to contract his volumes to a few pages. Yet surely there ought to be some bounds to repetition. Libraries ought no more to be heaped forever with the same thoughts differently expressed, than with the same books differently decorated.

The good or evil which these secondary writers produce is seldom of any long duration. As they owe their existence to change of fashion, they commonly disappear when a new fashion becomes prevalent. The authors that in any nation last from age to age are 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.

But, however the writers of the day may despair of future fame, they ought at least to forbear any present mischief. Though they cannot arrive at eminent heights of excellence, they might keep themselves harmless. They might take care to inform themselves before they attempt to inform others, and exert the little influence which they have for honest purposes. But such is the present state of our literature, that the ancient sage who thought “a great book a great evil” would now think the multitude of books a multitude of evils. He would consider a bulky writer who engrossed a year, and a swarm of pamphleteers who stole each an hour, as equal wasters of human life, and would make no other difference between them than between a beast of prey and a flight of locusts.

Samuel Johnson

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Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), often referred to as Dr Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. A graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford University, he was a devout Anglican and a committed Tory.

  • GaudeteMan

    Book? What’s a book?

    • You know, those witless and soul-crushing codices like 50 Shades of Gag, books by Oprah, Deepak Chopra, and Joel Osteen.

  • kirawrites

    “When the treasures of ancient knowledge lie unexamined, and original authors are neglected and forgotten, compilers and plagiaries are encouraged, who give us again what we had before, and grow great by setting before us what our own sloth had hidden from our view.”
    How I feel when I walk into Barnes and Noble and see all the “bestsellers”.

    Actually, how I feel about most of what’s in Barnes and Noble.

    At least there’s Amazon. True, it sells all the same popular rot, but it does have a nice selection of good Catholic books.

    • I am ashamed to say, I have a Prime Account, and I buy books, new and used, with abandon. Please don’t judge me.

      • kirawrites

        I can relate. I got Prime by accident, but now I don’t think I could live without it. Free two-day shipping is pretty tempting, and I’ve even had books come the next day.

  • kmk

    There are so many ‘good’ books. The farther I go back in history, the more I discover how history really does repeat itself, over and over and over again. All of the vices are there, then and now. Thank God for the virtues.
    I no longer believe that technology makes us smarter.

  • ColdStanding

    Protestants complaining about disregard for authority and slipshod literary productions. No irony there.

    • Oh, if Protestantism were a monolith, that statement would almost be 100% correct. Some of the greatest defenses of hierarchy and authority were penned by Protestant luminaries.

      We can shake our fist at God, but we can’t shake our DNA. 🙂

      • Aldo Elmnight

        In terms of them being seperated from the One True Church and the fullness of Truth, protestants are a monolith.

        • No Protestants are in communion with Rome, true.

          My point was contextual to the authority question.

  • Thanks for this wonderful post. No man should pass through this life without seeing the wonder that is Johnson. Dizzying intellect, saturated with wit, and replete with insight — not to mention his command of the English language is musical.

  • Jdonnell

    The Whigs of Johnson’s day were the great promoters of incipient capitalism. Johnson, of course, loathed them and said that the first Whig was “the Devil.” He saw that the power of wealth–that had in his time criminalized poverty–crushed values under the quantifiable value of money. He toasted revolution in Haiti and denounced “patriotism” that the Whigs wore on their sleeves (to be replaced in our day by lapel flags) as “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” He realized that the new financial turn was deadening to art and literature and would make mediocrity triumph. One of his most profound comments is in the lines, “This mournful truth is everywhere confest, SLOW RISES WORTH, BY POVERTY DEPREST.”

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Just an aside from a used book dealer: the pleasure of having a personal library is to have a rich assortment of choices when the ‘reading bug’ strikes. It is NOT to read every book one owns.

    • Crisiseditor

      As a bibliophile with an extensive library, I very much agree.

    • Holbrook Jackson’s “Anatomy of Bibliomania” describes my sick addiction to books like no other — well worth the read and entertaining beyond entertaining for the true bibliophile. He touched on the glorious sickness you mention.

      You are my hero. If your shoppe is anywhere near the Twin Cities, I would love to add it to my growing list of haunts.

      • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

        I am 800 miles away (and nobody’s hero fer sure). Don’t have a shop I just sell to shops, collectors and online. Thank you for your kind words.

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