Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Being Very Learned With Little or No Reading

Jonathan Swift, A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet (December 1, 1720):
Possibly you may think it a very severe task to arrive at a competent knowledge of so many of the ancients as excel in their way; and indeed it would be really so, but for the short and easy method lately found out, of abstracts, abridgments, summaries, &c., which are admirable expedients for being very learned with little or no reading; and have the same use with burning-glasses, to collect the diffused rays of wit and learning in authors, and make them point with warmth and quickness upon the reader’s imagination. And to this is nearly related that other modern device of consulting indexes, which is to read books Hebraically, and begin where others usually end. And this is a compendious way of coming to an acquaintance with authors. For authors are to be used like lobsters, you must look for the best meat in the tails, and lay the bodies back again in the dish. Your cunningest thieves (and what else are readers, who only read to borrow, i. e. to steal) use to cut off the portmanteau from behind, without staying to dive into the pockets of the owner. Lastly, you are taught thus much in the very elements of philosophy, for one of the first rules in logic is, Finis est primus in intentione.

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