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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.2 (2006) 268-273
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Beloved Ancients...and Much, Much More
Robert L. Mack
Jonathan Swift seems to have had a thing about books. Oddly enough, and despite the fact that he early in life formed a habit of drawing up lists of those books that he had either purchased or read, he wasn't all that fond of them. Or at least that is the impression one sometimes gets from any number of passages in his own writings. For starters, there seemed simply to be far too many of them—nor was there any discernible end in sight. The emergence of print culture that has been of so much interest to critics in recent decades was a phenomenon that Swift himself witnessed throughout the course of his own life. The new machine technologies, the bibliographical deluge such innovations engendered, the formats and often bewilderingly complex conventions of the printed book as an object, and (not least of all) the breed of seedy hacks and rapacious printers to whom it had given rise: all seemed to him to be transforming the world of polite letters into a place in which not only books but learning itself was to be regarded as little more than a corrupt if increasingly fashionable commodity. Alvin Kernan suggested some time ago that Swift's friend and contemporary Alexander Pope, "would not have found fault with Marshall McLuhan's generalization that print plunged 'the human mind into the sludge of an unconscious engendered by the book'" (Printing, Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson, Princeton, 1987, 15). Placed as it was firmly in the hands of a race of (as was so often alleged) ignorant or poorly-educated booksellers, the machine technology of print overwhelmed individual readers—readers who no longer had any means of discriminating between which books were good and which were bad. Far more damaging in Swift's eyes, however, was the perception that a valuable, traditional education based on classical ideals both of moral training and of oral and rhetorical performance was in danger of being replaced by a fetish for the obsessions of bookish pedantry, and by the conventions of a peculiarly myopic form of print-based textual scholarship. The literary skill of Swift's own Tale of a Tub and its odd appendage, The Battle of the Books (1704), as Joseph M. Levine has commented, lay primarily in the manner in which they embodied the virtues of classical imitation and rhetoric, while at the same time savaging the pretensions of modern learning and its products. "The whole work," Levine reminded readers of Swift's 1704 volume containing A Tale and The Battle, "with its prefaces, introductions, excurses, appendix, footnotes, and so forth, was meant of itself to travesty the scholarly treatise" (The Battle of the Books, Ithaca and London, 1991, 112). Swift's later "Proposal [End Page 268] for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue" (1712) was in some respects simply a more general reflection of his continued anxiety in the face of what he perceived to be the headlong decline and corruption of modern language and learning. Unless the modern writer took some immediate steps to bring such changes to a halt, Swift warned, that very same writer might well, in the near future, himself "be only considered as a tedious Relater of Facts, and perhaps consulted in his Turn, among other neglected Authors, to furnish materials for some further Collector" (Prose Works, ed. Temple Scott, London, 1897–1908, iv.18).
Swift's sustained apprehension regarding the relationship between the printed book as a widely disseminated technological artifact, on the one hand, and a piece of writing as the intimate product of an inviolable, personal mind, on the other—"between," as Hugh Kenner so perfectly put it, "a human document and the thing that Gutenberg's monster typically disgorges, a distinction...which...