The only time I regret not being much richer than I am is when I receive through the post (as I did yesterday) the catalogue of an antiquarian bookseller. Otherwise, I am more or less contented with my financial lot, but such a catalogue excites for a time my avarice and passion to possess, which is both strange and absurd since I now cannot hope to possess what I accumulate, to the great inconvenience of my legatees, for more than a handful of years.
I would never buy a book in whose contents I was not interested simply because it was rare, valuable, or even beautiful; the trouble is that my interest is so easily stimulated. When I look into a catalogue I am like someone with attention deficit disorder (if such a condition exists): I cannot fix my mind on something for long, because something else catches its attention. Or, to change the metaphor, I am like a butterfly that flits from flower to flower, sucking for a moment the nectar of each—if that is what butterflies do on flowers (I’m not sure).
Still, there is a lot of pleasure and amusement, perhaps even instruction, to be had from perusing catalogues. The one I received yesterday was from a Parisian bookseller from whom, occasionally, I have made what for me were extravagant purchases. He specializes in books about the sciences, including medicine, but also in the occult sciences and Freemasonry, the French having been for a time the most paranoid people on Earth about the Freemasons and their supposed conspiracy to dominate the world.
I receive his catalogues regularly, and the first thing of which they always remind me is that scientific progress has been long and laborious, with many highly intelligent and even brilliant men barking up the wrong tree or wandering down a blind alley; but even more, that science as a self-conscious, experimental inquiry into nature was for hundreds of years an almost exclusively Western phenomenon and is a glory of our civilization. This is so no longer, and it may well be that the torch has passed, or will soon pass, to other hands; but I very much doubt that such a catalogue could be produced in any other region of Earth.