Preface to the First Edition
THE present Volume pretends to no other merit, than that of being a laborious selection of the most interesting parts of the various ANA. To these valuable stores of Literature I have added some Anecdotes, which appeared to me amusive and curious; and some Observations, which, I hope, will not be deemed impertinent.
The ANA form a body of Literature not universally known. It may, therefore, be useful to inform the reader, that in the early part of the last century, it was a prevailing custom to take down for publication the Conversations, or “Table-Talk,” as they have been sometimes called, of the most eminent Wits and Scholars. To satisfy the demands of Famine, rather than those of Literature, some were prompted to sell their Collections to the Booksellers; and it may be fairly presumed, were less attentive to the richness of the materials than to the number of pages they were calculated to fill. Others published them at the death of a valued Friend, to display the extent of his science, or the felicity of his genius; and it must be confessed, that even these were not so scrupulous as they should have been of what they admitted into their Collections.
Had such Repositories of Literature been judiciously formed, they would have proved a valuable acquisition to the Republic of Letters: but their respective Compilers have evinced great inattention, or little discernment; nothing was discriminated in the mass of their materials; they appear to have listened to the mouth of the Scholar whose sentiments they record, as the credulous Enthusiast did in ancient times to the Oracle he worshipped. Thus, whatever was unintelligible, obscure, or even false, was held by these Literary Devotees in as great reverence as its opposite.
It has been repeatedly urged, and allowed, that the matter of elaborate Treatises, and even ponderous Volumes, may not infrequently be comprized in concise Essays, or short Remarks. Some things of this kind are attempted in the present Volume; and I have been prompted towards its publication, by a conviction that it will furnish much useful information to the generality of readers.
It is not just, however, that curiosity should be raised too high. If expectations are formed, which are impossible to be gratified, abilities infinitely superior to mine must be humbled. All the Anecdotes I offer will not be new: of some, I pretend only to remind the reader; but the greater part, I have frequently been tempted to believe, will appear interesting.
The fashionable and commercial world are too much occupied to attend to serious discussion and scientific research; the one laboriously employed in doing nothing, and the other indefatigable in doing every thing. To the literary labourer they leave the cultivation of the fields and the gardens of Literature: they are willing to purchase the productions of his talents; but they expect to receive only the fruits and the flowers. To such, who form indeed the generality of readers, it is presumed, the present Collection will not be found unuseful. Whatever is most interesting in books rarely to be met with, or whatever is most agreeable in compilations which it would be impossible for them to peruse with patience, is here selected: and, if it is not presumptuous to add, the Man of Letters, at the same time, may be reminded of important Observations, striking Anecdotes, and attic Pleasantries; which, however they deserve to be retained, will, without some Vade Mecum of this kind, soon escape from the most tenacious memory. In a word, if this collectlon answers the hopes of the Editor, it will be found a Miscellany not unamusive to the Literary Lounger.
As I have acknowledged that this Volume contains, for the most part, only a Collection from the Works of others, some Aristarchus may sagaciously discover, that it is not difficult to make books in this manner. With this I shall agree. But it will be admitted, that it has cost some care and labour to collect these materials. Should the useful and the agreeable be found blended, I believe the Public care little whether the Author has written every sentence himself; or, like me, stands deeply indebted to the works of other Writers.
To improve an arrangement which is not always so perfect as I could wish, I have added a copious INDEX: each Article also is titled, so that wherever the book is opened, the subject discussed immediately appears.
To be useful, and to please the Public, is my design. My work is not adapted to extend, or to bestow, reputation: it is sufficient, if it attains its humble pretension. A multifarious Collection of this kind stands in great need of Critical Candour: yet I should feel myself little solicitous concerning its reception, if I were certain that the urbanity of the Critic was to decide its fate.
The full title of the first edition was Curiosities of Literature: consisting of Anecdotes, Characters, Sketches and Observations Literary, Critical and Historical.
§ This Preface was reprinted verbatim in the second edition (1792) and, with some alterations, in the fourth (1798) edition of the Curiosities: the second and third to last paragraphs above being omitted and the first sentence of the opening paragraph slightly reworded.