03 August 2011

Battle of the Books

The Battle of the Books and Other Short Pieces introduced me to Jonathan Swift in a whole new way. I have to admit that I’ve never been a big fan of Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a fun sort of book with some clever satire, but it’s always really fallen flat with me. I just assumed that it is the best thing Swift ever wrote, as it is the one piece by him that is required reading in almost every school. This collection of his shorter writings showed me I was wrong.

The book opens with a short story called “The Battle of the Books.” Apparently in Swift’s day there was quite a bit of disagreement in the educational world over which books were more valuable and important to read. One school of thought favored the ancient writers, the other favored the moderns. The raging debate finds its way into St. James’s library where the books literally take up arms and go to war with one another in a hilarious parody of The Iliad. Some of my favorite passages:

“It happened upon this emergency that Æsop broke silence first. He had been of late most barbarously treated by a strange effect of the regent’s humanity, who had torn off his title-page, sorely defaced one half of his leaves, and chained him fast among a shelf of Moderns. Where, soon discovering how high the quarrel was likely to proceed, he tried all his arts, and turned himself to a thousand forms. At length, in the borrowed shape of an ass, the regent mistook him for a Modern; by which means he had time and opportunity to escape to the Ancients”

“Then Aristotle, observing Bacon advance with a furious mien, drew his bow to the head, and let fly his arrow, which missed the valiant Modern and went whizzing over his head; but Descartes it hit; the steel point quickly found a defect in his head-piece; it pierced the leather and the pasteboard, and went in at his right eye.”

“When Homer appeared at the head of the cavalry, mounted on a furious horse, with difficulty managed by the rider himself, but which no other mortal durst approach; he rode among the enemy’s ranks, and bore down all before him. Say, goddess, whom he slew first and whom he slew last! First, Gondibert advanced against him, clad in heavy armour and mounted on a staid sober gelding, not so famed for his speed as his docility in kneeling whenever his rider would mount or alight. He had made a vow to Pallas that he would never leave the field till he had spoiled Homer of his armour: madman, who had never once seen the wearer, nor understood his strength! Him Homer overthrew, horse and man, to the ground, there to be trampled and choked in the dirt.”

After this is included a “Meditation Upon a Broomstick,” apparently a parody of a popular moralist of his day. This one would probably have been funnier if I had read anything by the author being parodied.

The selection that follows is a dry satire of astrology and almanacs in which Swift, writing under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, predicts the death of one of the leading almanac makers of the day. Apparently his satire was so successful that many people really believed that the almanac maker, Mr. Partridge, had died. Poor Mr. Partridge had a difficult time convincing his creditors and business partners that he was still alive.

There are a few clever but not amazing poems after this, followed by some birthday poems to the love of Swift’s life, Stella. After this are printed two prayers written by Swift while Stella was dying. These are incredibly beautiful and heartfelt and really show the deep Christian devotion of Swift behind his playful exterior.

Finally the book is rounded out with an essay with perhaps the best title ever: “An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, As Things Now Stand, Be Attended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.” This is a brilliant piece of biting satire lobbed by Swift at the growing secularism of his day. Many parts of it could have been written yesterday with America in mind. The book concludes with a collection of sayings by Swift that are not part of larger essays.

I came away from this book with a new appreciation for Jonathan Swift as an author, thinker and satirist. This book is just the thing to instill an appreciation for the breadth and depth of this great writer.

4/5 stars

1 comment:

Wayne Brown said...

Very cool! I never was a Swift fan either.. I'll have to check out this book, though. :)