Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Little Books.

Myles Davies has given an opinion of the advantages of Little Books, with some humour.

“The smallness of the size of a book was always its own commendation; as, on the contrary, the largeness of a book is its own disadvantage, as well as the terror of learning. In short, a big book is a scare-crow to the head and pocket of the author, student, buyer, and seller, as well as a harbour of ignorance; hence the inaccessible masteries of the inexpugnable ignorance and superstition of the ancient heathens, degenerate Jews, and of the popish scholasters and canonists, entrenched under the frightful bulk of huge, vast, and innumerable volumes; such as the great folio that the Jewish rabbins fancied in a dream was given by the angel Raziel to his pupil Adam, containing all the celestial sciences. And the volumes writ by Zoroaster, entitled The Similitude, which is said to have taken up no more space than 1260 hides of cattle: as also the 25,000, or, as some say, 36,000 volumes, besides 525 lesser MSS. of his. The grossness and multitude of Aristotle and Varro’s books were both a prejudice to the authors, and an hindrance to learning, and an occasion of the greatest part of them being lost. The largeness of Plutarch’s treatises is a great cause of his being neglected, while Longinus and Epictetus, in their pamphlet Remains, are every one’s companions. Origen’s 6000 volumes (as Epiphanius will have it) were not only the occasion of his venting more numerous errors, but also for the most part of their perdition. — Were it not for Euclid’s Elements, Hippocrates’ Aphorisms, Justinian’s Institutes, and Littleton’s Tenures, in small pamphlet volumes, young mathematicians, fresh-water physicians, civilian novices, and les apprentices en la ley d’Angleterre, would be at a loss and stand, and total disencouragement. One of the greatest advantages the Dispensary has over King Arthur is its pamphlet size. So Boileau’s Lutrin, and his other pamphlet poems, in respect of Perrault’s and Chapelain’s St. Paulin and la Pucelle. These seem to pay a deference to the reader’s quick and great understanding; those to mistrust his capacity, and to confine his time as well as his intellect.”

Notwithstanding so much may be alleged in favour of books of a small size, yet the scholars of a former age regarded them with contempt. Scaliger, says Baillet, cavils with Drusius for the smallness of his books; and one of the great printers of the time (Moret, the successor of Plantin) complaining to the learned Puteanus, who was considered as the rival of Lipsius, that his books were too small for sale, and that purchasers turned away, frightened at their diminutive size; Puteanus referred him to Plutarch, whose works consist of small treatises; but the printer took fire at the comparison, and turned him out of his shop, for his vanity at pretending that he wrote in any manner like Plutarch! a specimen this of the politeness and reverence of the early printers for their learned authors; Jurieu reproaches Calomiès that he is a great author of little books!

At least, if a man is the author only of little books, he will escape the sarcastic observation of Cicero on a voluminous writer — that “his body might be burned with his writings,” of which we have had several, eminent for the worthlessness and magnitude of their labours.

It was the literary humour of a certain Mæcenas, who cheered the lustre of his patronage with the steams of a good dinner, to place his guests according to the size and thickness of the books they had printed. At the head of the table sat those who had published in folio, foliissimo; next the authors in quarto; then those in octavo. At that table Blackmore would have had the precedence of Gray. Addison, who found this anecdote in one of the Anas, has seized this idea, and applied it with his felicity of humour in No. 529 of the Spectator.

Montaigne’s Works have been called by a Cardinal, “The Breviary of Idlers.” It is therefore the book for many men. Francis Osborne has a ludicrous image in favour of such opuscula. “Huge volumes, like the ox roasted whole at Bartholomew fair, may proclaim plenty of labour, but afford less of what is delicate, savoury, and well-concocted, than SMALLER PIECES.”

In the list of titles of minor works, which Aulus Gellius has preserved, the lightness and beauty of such compositions are charmingly expressed. Among these we find — a Basket of Flowers; an Embroidered Mantle; and a Variegated Meadow.

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