I recently started rereading a book I bought many years ago – one volume of an eight volume collected set of The Spectator, a London daily periodical from the early 18th century. William Addison and Joseph Steele wrote most of the The Spectator’s 2500-word, witty and wise essays on serious topics of social value. A typical piece warns against the dangers of using “party lying” (i.e. propaganda) to advance a political cause. Another is an extended meditation on eternity. Several offer a serialized, detailed review of Milton’s works.
This may sound like somewhat hard going, but The Spectator is nothing if not eclectic. It includes comic short stories involving a good-natured but dim country squire named Roger de Coverley. You can find parody advertisements a quarter millennium before Saturday Night Live — for an elocution school for parrots or a dentist who offered to extract teeth from masquerade goers without removing their masks. And in one memorable exchange of letters, a prim young woman named Matilda Mohair wrote to condemn the unseemly practice of young men pushing women on swings as an excuse to catch a glimpse of their legs. Within a week, four other correspondents wrote, claiming to know Matilda and saying she was only objecting because she had crooked legs. One even said she was with child “despite her crooked legs.” It’s an exchange I could easily see happening on Twitter.
The Spectator was wildly popular in its time, with an estimated daily readership, in London’s fashionable coffeehouses and salons, of nearly 20,000 at a time when books were typically printed in lots of 500. Even before the daily issues stopped running, publishers were collecting the essays into an eight-volume set that was reprinted every few years for more than a century. It only began to fall out of favor in the late 19th century.
My volume is part of a small (duodecimo) leather-bound, illustrated set from the 1767 London printing. Because The Spectator was so popular, you can still find individual eighteenth-century volumes in good condition for about the cost of a modern hardback. This particular volume played a role in my own life. When my wife and I were courting, I used to read the essays aloud to her. She particularly liked one that explored the value of a garden — the essayist suggests using evergreens to create a winter garden and recommends using plants native to the area, “such as rejoice in the soil.” (By the way, reading your favorite works aloud is not a bad way to find a soulmate.)
The thing that delights me most about this particular book, though, is the inscriptions written in the flyleaf by the book’s previous owners. [Read more…]