Saturday, January 17, 2015

Book Review: The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

Wouldn't it be great to try reviewing each book I read this year?  I seriously doubt that it will happen, but that doesn't keep me from thinking such idealistic things at the beginning of a new year. :)

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, by Samuel Johnson, was the first book I finished this year.  It was one I had on hand as a possibility for Bethany's school year, chosen from the Ambleside Online book list, but I wanted to pre-read it.  I didn't even know what it was about.  Toward the end of 2014, I wanted to complete 50 books before the year was out, but I was getting short on time.  I took up this one with just a few days left in the year because it was only around 100 pages, and it only took Johnson a week to write.  Surely then, it wouldn't take long to read.

I was wrong.  Not only was I pretty busy, especially in that last part of 2014 and the first part of 2015, both with various activities and other things needing reading as well, but the book is apparently the distillation of years of forethought, learning, and experience.  While he did whip it out in a week in 1759 to pay for the costs of his mother's healthcare and funeral, and it is a novel, it's not a lightweight read.  This is a thought-provoking, philosophical book.

But don't let that keep you from reading it!  Although I was mildly irritated that I couldn't get it read in time, and it ended up taking me more than twice as long to read it as it took him to write it, I really enjoyed it.  I'm quite glad I read it, and recommend it.

Rasselas is a young prince who lives in what seems at first to be a rather Utopian community, but he is not content.  He decides to travel and explore the concept of happiness, to try to determine where and how to find and keep it.  This book is about his adventures and conversations with various people from different walks of life in his attempts to do so.

Through this plot, Johnson philosophizes on various topics, including but certainly not limited to:  idleness and luxury, work, learning, marriage, family, grief, and madness.  Yes, he packed a lot in those less than 100 pages!  There is a lot of quotable wisdom in it.  I think it will make a great book for discussion, especially coupled with a solid Biblical perspective.  I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued by this little book.

Some of the many quotes I enjoyed:

"...the life that is devoted to knowledge passes silently away, and is very little diversified by events.  To talk in publick, to think in solitude, to read and to hear, to inquire, and answer inquiries, is the business of a scholar.  He wanders about the world without pomp or terrour, and is neither known nor valued but by men like himself" (p. 15).

"Inconsistencies... cannot both be right, but, imputed to man, they may both be true.  Yet diversity is not inconsistency" (p. 16).

"...drinking at the fountains of knowledge, to quench the thirst of curiosity" (p. 17).

"...envy feels not its own happiness, but when it may be compared with the misery of others" (p. 19).

"Truth, such as is necessary to the regulation of life, is always found where it is honestly sought" (p. 24).

"Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed" (p. 25).

"Few things are impossible to diligence and skill" (p. 28).

"I live in the crowds of jollity, not so much to enjoy company as to shun myself, and am only loud and merry to conceal my sadness" (p. 35).

"We are long before we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself" (p. 35).

"Be not too hasty... to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men" (p. 38).

"...every tongue was muttering censure and every eye was searching for a fault" (p. 47).

"The colours of life in youth and age appear different, as the face of nature in spring and winter" (p. 50).

"Few parents act in such a manner as much to enforce their maxims by the credit of their lives" (p. 50).

"The general folly of mankind is the cause of general complaint" (p. 56).

"...nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left... as we approach one, we recede from another.  There are goods so opposed that we cannot seize both, but, by too much prudence, may pass between them at too great a distance to reach either.  This is often the fate of long consideration; he does nothing who endeavours to do more than is allowed to humanity....  Of the blessings set before you make your choice, and be content.  No man can taste the fruits of autumn while he is delighting his scent with the flowers of the spring: no man can, at the same time, fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile" (p. 58).

"This at least... is the present reward of virtuous conduct, that no unlucky consequence can cause us to repent it" (p. 67).

"Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful" (p. 81).

" mock the heaviest of human afflictions is neither charitable nor wise.... Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason" (p. 84).

"No disease of the imagination... is so difficult of cure, as that which is complicated with the dread of guilt..." (p. 92).

I had trouble stopping!  But I must leave you reason to read the book. :)

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  1. How interesting! I had never heard of this book.

    For what it's worth, I heartily endorse your idea of reviewing all the books you read this year. :) Truthfully, as I looked over your list from last year, I would love to hear your review of some of them. In particular, what did you think of Growing Up Duggar? And the Kyle Butts books?

    1. I'd love to review some of last year's, too. I've been feeling lately that perhaps I really *need* to get some of my thoughts out in a more organized manner about some of them. I have what feels like a swirling around of all these thoughts in a jumbled manner in my head! For history-related stuff, I may need to buckle down and learn some more dates, etc., to pin things to, in the hopes that I don't feel so muddled from all my "crash-course" pre-reading. From the other books, perhaps just the old narration and discussion idea is in order. I'm trying to decide if all this means I should sacrifice some of my potential reading time this year for just some focus on trying to ensure that a little more of it is meaningfully assimilated. Tough decisions!

      Anyway, I had thought that at least making more effort this year as I complete them could be a good place to start. But I can try for the Kyle Butt and Growing Up Duggar, too (may take a while).