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The Note-Books of Samuel Butler   By: (1835-1902)

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Early in his life Samuel Butler began to carry a note book and to write down in it anything he wanted to remember; it might be something he heard some one say, more commonly it was something he said himself. In one of these notes he gives a reason for making them:

"One's thoughts fly so fast that one must shoot them; it is no use trying to put salt on their tails."

So he bagged as many as he could hit and preserved them, re written on loose sheets of paper which constituted a sort of museum stored with the wise, beautiful, and strange creatures that were continually winging their way across the field of his vision. As he became a more expert marksman his collection increased and his museum grew so crowded that he wanted a catalogue. In 1874 he started an index, and this led to his reconsidering the notes, destroying those that he remembered having used in his published books and re writing the remainder. The re writing shortened some but it lengthened others and suggested so many new ones that the index was soon of little use and there seemed to be no finality about it ("Making Notes," pp. 100 1 post). In 1891 he attached the problem afresh and made it a rule to spend an hour every morning re editing his notes and keeping his index up to date. At his death, in 1902, he left five bound volumes, with the contents dated and indexed, about 225 pages of closely written sermon paper to each volume, and more than enough unbound and unindexed sheets to made a sixth volume of equal size.

In accordance with his own advice to a young writer (p. 363 post), he wrote the notes in copying ink and kept a pressed copy with me as a precaution against fire; but during his lifetime, unless he wanted to refer to something while he was in my chambers, I never looked at them. After his death I took them down and went through them. I knew in a general way what I should find, but I was not prepared for such a multitude and variety of thoughts, reflections, conversations, incidents. There are entries about his early life at Langar, Handel, school days at Shrewsbury, Cambridge, Christianity, literature, New Zealand, sheep farming, philosophy, painting, money, evolution, morality, Italy, speculation, photography, music, natural history, archaeology, botany, religion, book keeping, psychology, metaphysics, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Sicily, architecture, ethics, the Sonnets of Shakespeare. I thought of publishing the books just as they stand, but too many of the entries are of no general interest and too many are of a kind that must wait if they are ever to be published. In addition to these objections the confusion is very great. One would look in the earlier volumes for entries about New Zealand and evolution and in the later ones for entries about the Odyssey and the Sonnets, but there is no attempt at arrangement and anywhere one may come upon something about Handel, or a philosophical reflection, between a note giving the name of the best hotel in an Italian town and another about Harry Nicholls and Herbert Campbell as the Babes in the Wood in the pantomime at the Grecian Theatre. This confusion has a charm, but it is a charm that would not, I fear, survive in print and, personally, I find that it makes the books distracting for continuous reading. Moreover they were not intended to be published as they stand ("Preface to Vol. II," p. 215 post), they were intended for his own private use as a quarry from which to take material for his writing, and it is remarkable that in practice he scarcely ever used them in this way ("These Notes," p. 261 post). When he had written and re written a note and spoken it and repeated it in conversation, it became so much a part of him that, if he wanted to introduce it in a book, it was less trouble to re state it again from memory than to search through his "precious indexes" for it and copy it ("Gadshill and Trapani," p. 194, "At Piora," p. 272 post). But he could not have re stated a note from memory if he had not learnt it by writing it, so that it may be said that he did use the notes for his books, though not precisely in the way he originally intended... Continue reading book >>

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