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Tim O'Reilly (Founder/O'Reilly Media)Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson. Johnson, author of the first major dictionary of the English language, is one of my heroes. His work can be considered an extended meditation on Milton's phrase from Paradise Lost: "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." The quote from Johnson I subject people to most often is from his short novel Rasselas, in which a character remarks something like this: "I consider the pyramids to be a monument to the insufficiency of all human enjoyments. He who has built for use till use is supplied must begin to build for vanity." The pyramids are actually quite a wonderful thing, but there's a lot of wisdom in this analysis. Johnson's work is a wonderful reminder that our minds have prodigious energy that must be focused on the right objects, and that much human pathology comes from having insufficient objects for our striving.
Rasselas and his companions escape the pleasures of the "happy valley" in order to make their "choice of life." By witnessing the misfortunes and miseries of others they come to understand the nature of happiness, and value it more highly. Their travels and enquiries raise important practical and philosophical questions concerning many aspects of the human condition, including the business of a poet, the stability of reason, the immortality of the soul, and how to find contentment. Johnson's adaptation of the popular oriental tale displays his usual wit and perceptiveness; skeptical and probing, his tale nevertheless suggests that wisdom and self-knowledge need not be entirely beyond reach. This sparkling new edition includes an authoritative introduction by Thomas Keymer relating the story to Johnson's life, thought, and writings; the rise of the novel genre; and the global context of the Seven Years War. Extensive annotations relate the novel to its literary, philosophical, and political contexts.