“Men have been kept back as by a kind of enchantment from progress in the sciences by a reverence for antiquity… The opinion touching it which men entertain is quite a negligent one, and scarcely consonant with the word itself. For the old age of the world is to be accounted the true antiquity; and this is the attribute of our own times, not of that earlier age of the world in which the ancients lived.”
~ Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
“Those whom we call the ancients are really those who lived in the youth of the world, and the true infancy of man; and as we have added the experience of the ages between us and them to what they knew, it is only in ourselves that is to be found that antiquity which we venerate in others.”
~ Pascal, Pensees
“Properly understood, the question of the pre-eminence of the ancients or the moderns comes down to this: were there once larger trees growing in the countryside than there are today? If there were, then Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes can never be equaled in our time. But if our trees are as tall as those of past times, then Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes can be equaled.”
~ Fontenelle, Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns
Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson; William Heinemann, London (1978).
Penguin these days is publishing some very attractive collector’s editions of famous novels. I was recently in one of the local corporate bookstores and took a copy of Pride and Prejudice from the shelf to admire the cover art. As lovely as it looked from the outside, however, the quality of the typeface – digitally perfect, utterly regular – was a turn off.
If we’re to fall fatally in love (with a book, with a person), some irregularity of features is needed. “There is no excellent beauty,” Francis Bacon wrote, “that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” Consider Zuleika (and Zuleika):
Perhaps it’s hard to tell by the photographs here. You’ll have to trust that I was instantly smitten with this book. The flimsy, fading dust jacket and loose binding; the high quality of the paper combined with the smudged, uneven application of ink; the inspired choice of typeface, with the upturned ‘e’ that recalls Zuleika’s own “shapely tilt of the nose” – it all adds up to something irresistible.
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.
~ Francis Bacon, Of Studies
Still others are best put on ice for future enjoyment. After all, certain foods are more happily digested by the middle aged than the young, or by the old than the middle aged. Bacon himself ought to know something about the dangers of improper refrigeration since he died – on Easter Sunday 1626 – of an infection contracted while stuffing a dead chicken full of snow.