December 19, 2008

A Cottage...Dickens...a Dusty Edition of the Britannica

Sigh...How wondrously evocative is this First Things piece by Neuhaus? Let us count the ways:
Readers of long standing will recall that for a few weeks each summer at the family cottage in Quebec, across the Ottawa River from Pembroke, Ontario, where I was born and reared, I attend to a particular project, usually a re-reading of familiar texts...

There is, of course, neither Internet nor television nor newspaper. The last factor is an annual reassurance that there is life after the New York Times. Not, to be sure, that anyone should need to be reassured about that. I would not exaggerate. Life on Allumette Island is not pristine wilderness. There is, for instance, a phone...It is a tradition of more than twenty years that for a couple of weeks George Weigel and his family, now extending to the third generation, are there, and the conspiracies extravagantly attributed to the two of us are plotted in leisurely evenings on the deck accompanied by Jack Daniels, cigars, and sunsets beyond description. This year Rabbi David Novak was not able to make his annual visit, so the further elucidations of the errors of Immanuel Kant will have to wait until next summer.

But back to Charles Dickens. Our daily “newspaper” at the cottage is the Encyclopedia Britannica and, as it happens, the extended article on Dickens is by the inimitable G.K. Chesterton. As you might expect, this is the old fourteenth edition of the Britannica. (I have the even more venerable eleventh edition at the house in New York.) Later, after Sears Roebuck bought the Britannica in 1920 and then gave it to the University of Chicago, it ended up falling into the hands of Mortimer J. Adler, whom I trust God has forgiven for turning it into something of a referential muddle, complete with a “synopticon” based on the 102 “greatest ideas” of history and a complicated compendium of subordinate ideas. The Britannica at the cottage is content to give one material to think about rather than a tutorial on how to think like Mortimer J. Adler. And Chesterton on Dickens gives one much to think about.

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