Friday, March 11, 2011

The Battle of the Books by Jonathon Swift

This satire has been on my TBR list for years. Written in 1697, it describes the battle between ancient and modern books. At that time, "ancient" referred to the Greek classics and “modern” referred to books written in the 17th century. It was a rebuttal to authors who were writing that modern knowledge had surpassed the knowledge that had been available in earlier books. Swift argued that the essential ideas taught by Aristotle and others were just as valid and important as ever.

As for any obligations they owed to the Ancients, [Modern books] renounced them all: For our horses are of our own breeding, our arms of our own forging, and our clothes of our own cutting out and sewing. Plato was by chance upon the next shelf, and observing those that spoke to be in ragged plight, their horses lean and foundered, their weapons of rotten wood, their armor rusty, and nothing but rags underneath; he laughed aloud, and in his pleasant way, swore, by God, he believed them. (p. 107-108)

Later in the book “Moderns” are compared to spiders: For, pray Gentlemen, was ever anything so Modern as the Spider in his Air, his Turns, and his Paradoxes? He argues on behalf of You his Brethren, and Himself, with many Boastings of his native Stock, and great Genius; that he Spins and Spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any Obligation or Assistance from without. Then he displays to you his great Skill in Architecture and Improvement in Mathematics… Erect your Schemes with as much Method and Skill as you please; yet, if the Materials be nothing but Dirt, spun out of your own Entrails (the guts of Modern Brains) the Edifice will conclude at last in a Cobweb: The Duration of which, like that of other Spiders Webs, may be imputed to their being forgotten, or neglected, or hid in a Corner. (p. 111)

I’m a fan of 19th century classics (not Swift’s definition of the word) and tend to disdain lack of depth in modern “usurpers” (You can see why I liked the cobweb analogy!) so I thoroughly enjoyed Swift’s criticism’s. It’s a pity that his razor sharp wit is cloaked in archaic language and spellings. Take heart, though. It’s only twenty pages long and worth the effort. It also helps to read an article about the essay beforehand so you can recognize the authors whose names are being mentioned.


the Ink Slinger said...

That's too funny! I have this book on my reading list for this year (along with Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which I'm halfway through). Thanks for the review. I'm looking forward to reading it even more!

sushmita said...

matter is also made funny by this funny,allegorical,satirical and ironical writing style.interesting to read.thanks for review.

Jacqueline said...

"It also helps to read an article about the essay beforehand so you can recognize the authors whose names are being mentioned."

I am having trouble finding such an article. A good, thorough one anyway. Recommendations? Links? Please, and thank you. :-)

hopeinbrazil said...

Jacqueline, the Wikipedia article gives enough background on Swift's essay to jump start your understanding.