Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Glutton Of Literature Hungry For Learning But Starved Of Wisdom

by Stephen J. Gertz

Isaac D'Israeli (1766-1848).
 The following is excerpted from Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature, originally published in 1791 and expanded to multiple volumes in 1793, 1807, 1817, and 1823 (Second Series). A compilation of literary anecdotes and lore, this piece appears as Article 121, a cautionary tale about the dangers of reading too much, thinking about it too little, and thus becoming "a living Cyclopædia, though a dark lantern."

"Anthony Magliabechi, who died at the age of eighty, was celebrated for his great knowledge of books. He has been called the Helluo, or the Glutton of Literature, as Peter Comestor received his nickname from his amazing voracity for food he could never digest; which appeared when having fallen sick of so much false learning, he threw it all up in his “Sea of Histories,” which proved to be the history of all things, and a bad history of everything. Magliabechi’s character is singular; for though his life was wholly passed in libraries, being librarian to the Duke of Tuscany, he never wrote himself. There is a medal which represents him sitting, with a book in one hand, and with a great number of books scattered on the ground. The candid inscription signifies, that “it is not sufficient to become learned to have read much, if we read without reflection.” This is the only remains we have of his own composition that can be of service to posterity. A simple truth, which may however be inscribed in the study of every man of letters.

"His habits of life were uniform. Ever among his books, he troubled himself with no other concern whatever, and the only interest he appeared to take for any living thing was his spiders; for whom, while sitting among his literary piles, he affected great sympathy; and perhaps in contempt of those whose curiosity appeared impertinent, he frequently cried out, “to take care not to hurt his spiders!” Although he lost no time in writing himself, he gave considerable assistance to authors who consulted him. He was himself an universal index to all authors. He had one book, among many others, dedicated to him, and this dedication consisted of a collection of titles of works which he had had at different times dedicated to him, with all the eulogiums addressed to him in prose and verse. When he died, he left his large collection of books for the public use; they now compose the public library of Florence.

"Heyman, a celebrated Dutch professor, visited this erudite librarian, who was considered as the ornament of Florence. He found him amongst his books, of which the number was prodigious. Two or three rooms in the first story were crowded with them, not only along their sides, but piled in heaps on the floor, so that it was difficult to sit, and more so to walk. A narrow space was contrived, indeed, so that by walking sideways you might extricate yourself from one room to another. This was not all; the passage below stairs was full of books, and the staircase from the top to the bottom was lined with them. When you reached the second story, you saw with astonishment three rooms, similar to those below, equally full, so crowded, that two good beds in these chambers were also crammed with books.

1848, all in one volume edition.

"This apparent confusion did not, however, hinder Magliabechi from immediately finding the books he wanted. He knew them all so well, that even to the least of them it was sufficient to see its outside, to say what it was; and indeed he read them day and night, and never lost sight of any. He ate on his books, he slept on his books, and quitted them as rarely as possible. During his whole life he only went twice from Florence; once to see Fiesoli, which is not above two leagues distant, and once ten miles farther by order of the Grand Duke. Nothing could be more simple than his mode of life; a few eggs, a little bread, and some water, were his ordinary food. A drawer of his desk being open, Mr. Heyman saw there several eggs, and some money which Magliabechi had placed there for his daily use. But as this drawer was generally open, it frequently happened that the servants of his friends, or strangers who came to see him, pilfered some of these things; the money or the eggs.

"His dress was as cynical as his repasts. A black doublet, which descended to his knees; large and long breeches; an old patched black cloak; an amorphous hat, very much worn, and the edges ragged; a large neckcloth of coarse cloth, begrimed with snuff; a dirty shirt, which he always wore as long as it lasted, and which the broken elbows of his doublet did not conceal; and, to finish this inventory, a pair of ruffles which did not belong to the shirt. Such was the brilliant dress of our learned Florentine; and in such did he appear in the public streets, as well as in his own house. Let me not forget another circumstance; to warm his hands, he generally had a stove with fire fastened to his arms, so that his clothes were generally singed and burnt, and his hands scorched. He had nothing otherwise remarkable about him. To literary men he was extremely affable, and a cynic only to the eye; anecdotes almost incredible are related of his memory. It is somewhat uncommon that as he was so fond of literary food, he did not occasionally dress some dishes of his own invention, or at least some sandwiches to his own relish. He indeed should have written CURIOSITIES OF LITERATURE. He was a living Cyclopædia, though a dark lantern.

"Of such reading men, Hobbes entertained a very contemptible, if not a rash opinion. His own reading was inconsiderable, and he used to say, that if he had spent as much time in reading as other men of learning, he should have been as ignorant as they. He put little value on a large library, for he considered all books to be merely extracts and copies, for that most authors were like sheep, never deviating from the beaten path. History he treated lightly, and thought there were more lies than truths in it. But let us recollect after all this, that Hobbes was a mere metaphysician, idolising his own vain and empty hypotheses. It is true enough that weak heads carrying in them too much reading may be staggered. Le Clerc observes of two learned men, De Marcily and Barthius, that they would have composed more useful works had they read less numerous authors, and digested the better writers."

I am indebted to J.J. Philips for drawing my attention to this piece from Curiosities of Literature, a book with which I am familiar but have not, admittedly, read in its entirety.

The whole book may be read online at Spamula or Project Gutenberg.

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