Book Report: The Use and Abuse of Books by Leon Battista Alberti (1999)

Of course, this work was originally entitled De Commodis litterarum atque incommodis before Renée Neu Watkins translated it for us. I picked this book up over a year ago at the Carondolet YMCA Book Fair for fifty cents. Even though it’s only 54 pages, it has taken me this long to power through it.

Apparently (the introduction tells us), Alberti wrote this tract early in his Renaissance career as a scholar because his wealthy family was begging for him to produce something to justify his existence as a freeloading scholar. This is his defense of freeloading: in it, he outlines that someone dedicated to books should seek only the higher knowledge and truth within and should not expect to get chicks, money, power, or reknown. Let’s face it, a real scholar hits the books for 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, in ill-heated Renaissance apartments wearing rags–because all of the scholars meager moneys go into books.

The book reads as though it was written by any stereotypical scribe from a fantasy novel, but it was written by a young man romanticizing the hair shirt he’d chosen for his wardrobe and trying to lower his family’s expectations. The prose is flowery and meandering, even where the text continues to say that the author is glossing over many things and is getting back to the point.

Still, the rhetoric comes from a different time, where arguments are advanced by reason without the intrusion of actual data points (although Alberti offers anecdotes, often at hearsay distance, to illustrate) or invective (which is the contemporary practice).

The book did not give me any advice on how to wean myself from book abuse, and it was my 50th book completed this year. I obviously need help.

Books mentioned in this review:

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