In Praise of a Dying Trade

Dalrymple’s second essay in this month’s New English Review relates a couple of his recent finds at second-hand bookshops, among them a bad but interesting book by an unknown author:

There is surely an instructive lesson here. Alfred Pairpoint, to judge by his book, was an average man except, perhaps, in his determination to see his words, very ordinary as they were, between covers. His thoughts and feelings and prejudices were those of an ordinary man, neither particularly clever nor particularly stupid, neither outstandingly observant or penetrating, nor outstandingly blind or lacking in penetration. In this respect, he resembles most of us: and he had absolutely no conception or inkling that the most destructive war since the Napoleonic era was about to break out. Such blindness to the future seems to be the permanent condition of Mankind: and those few who, like Sir Isaac Newton, have seen a little further than others (perhaps as much by luck as by judgment, for where millions guess the future some must be right), are rarely attended to or their correct prognostications taken as the basis of action. Our ignorance of the future is not only our permanent burden but also the glory of our lives, for it makes our engagement with the world permanently necessary. If we knew everything our lives as conscious beings would be intolerable.

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