I have read many times about Google Books, but have never paid attention to this project, nor to the controversies swirling around it. What does it have to do with me, I thought. I buy any book I wish to read, or if it is out of print, I’ll venture to my library. Today, however, I got caught up in its charms. I think I finally “got” what it’s all about.
It all started when I read the iGoogle daily quote:
“An economist is a surgeon with an excellent scalpel and a rough-edged lancet, who operates beautifully on the dead and tortures the living.”
I was struck by this quote as being particularly apt for our times, and wondered who this Nicholas Chamfort was that originated it. I discovered that he lived from 1741 to 1793, which struck me as doubly interesting. How could someone living so long ago, back when the field of economics was in its infancy, say something that was still very applicable today. How curious.
Googling on Nicholas Chamfort’s name led to little more than more quotes, all of them very astute. Surprisingly, I found no link to any entry in Wikipedia – which I have come to suppose holds almost the entirety of all human knowledge within its pages. Finally, in the third page of Google results, I found an entry in Google books, for something called “Eclectic Magazine” under a heading titled “Neglected French Authors”. Ha, I thought. This is the very thing I’m looking for. I proceeded to read four or five pages about the life and works of Nicholas Chamfort.
It appeared to have been translated from an original French work, and was full of untranslated French phrases. It turns out that this Google book was a reproduction of some sort of literary digest, and this edition was first published in 1852 in New York. (More on that later.) Evidently, prose laced so liberally with French phrases was not daunting to contemporary readers. I, on the other hand, living over 150 years later, had to either puzzle them out through reference to half remembered high school French lessons, or infer their meaning from the context, or simply ignore them. (I thought about trying to use Babelfish, but didn’t want to take the time; I was getting the main thing that I wanted out of the article, namely the gist of Nicholas Chamfort’s life. So what if some high falutin’ foreign phrases went over my head.)
And, what an interesting live Chamfort had, beginning as a bastard son of a prostitute, and ending during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. He was a writer renowned in his time for articles and plays, and had unequivocally embraced the Revolution, but evidently none of his works speaks as universally as, say, Cervantes, Dante, or Shakespeare, and the only thing English speaking peoples know him for are his aphorisms and quotes. Nonetheless, I’m glad I took the time to look him up, and very glad that Google books exists, because otherwise I’m not sure that I would have ever found out about him. The article’s summary of his life speaks best about Nicholas Chamfort:
“The youth of Chamfort was irregular and stormy. His birth, his poverty, his passions, his decided taste for letters — a taste which led him away from all lucrative occupation —were all circumstances unfavorable to him in a worldly sense. The lightness and liveliness of his mind — the vivacity and originality of his humor — the readiness of his repartees — his natural causticity, which veiled the kindliness of his nature, and caused the goodness of his heart to be unjustly suspected — all contributed to throw around him a certain haze of unpopularity. This feeling was greatly increased by his unconquerable aversion to the numerous race of impudent, unabashed, and self-contented fools with which society is so thickly studded, and by his thorough disrelish and openly expressed contempt for pretenders of all kinds. Such sentiments, ever openly expressed, inspired many with fear, and not a few with hatred. Independently of this, the zeal with which Chamfort embraced the Revolution and its doctrines, made of every one opposed to his opinions a personal enemy. He had adopted from the clubs a custom of speaking out his mind perhaps too boldly, and of substituting loudness and vehemence for that politeness and courtesy of which he had been earlier a model. He has himself truly said, that there is a certain ardent energy incident to or inseparable from a particular kind of talent, which often misleads men into imprudences who are well inclined at bottom, and who are not morally wrong.”
The article also tells us this about Chamfort:
“No man mixed more in the world than Chamfort, and he brought into it a spirit of observation so remarkable and ingenious as to appear to the ablest and shrewdest of his contemporaries almost unerring and miraculous in his judgments.”
This is exactly why I felt compelled to look him up and find out all I could about him.
After having read about Chamfort, I decided to poke around this Google reprint – if you will – of a publication dating back to 1852. I’m always curious about printed works, and will browse through almost anything that comes in front of me. At the beginning of this work, Google shows images from the front cover, and the inside cover (indicating that this was a volume donated to the University of Michigan library by one Alpheus Finch, in 1896). The full title is
“The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art,
September to December 1852
W. H. Bidwell, Editor and Proprietor
New York: published at 120 Nassau Street 1852”
On the next page is a note:
“Edward O. Jenkins, printer
114 Nassau Street.”
One can imagine some sort of cozy business relationship between these two, and perhaps even a friendship.
Then, as I was perusing the table of contents – which seemed like a cross between what we today call a table of contents and an index – I noted articles about the Duke of Wellington (who died that year, if I recollect my history correctly), Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, A Day in a French Criminal Court, Police System of London, Miss Bronte (!), The Hunchback of Strasburg (!!), and after seeing that, I knew I had to have this to read through and through. So I downloaded the PDF file that Google provided, and I’m looking forward to reading what W. H. Bidwell thought would be interesting to readers in 1852.