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October 2001

The battle of the book: the research library today

by Eric Ormsby

The second in a series titled “The survival of culture”

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and France a boisterous debate, traditionally known as the “Battle of the Books,” raged for many decades. The issue at stake was one of style: should we accept the “Antients” (to use Jonathan Swift’s spelling) as our models and exemplars in matters literary, given their immemorial legacy of acutely expressive prose and verse, or should we rather forge a “Modern” style and manner befitting our own age and its peculiar requirements and contingencies? Charles Perrault in France in the 1695 preface to his Contes sided resolutely with the moderns, and this on moral grounds: the ancient fables taught a destructive morality. Interestingly enough, he singled out the pernicious effects of certain misogynistic classical tales on young girls’ moral nature and declared: “I maintain that my fables deserve more to be related than most of the ancient tales &he ...

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Eric Ormsby's latest book is The Baboons of Hada, a selection of his poems (Carcanet).


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 October 2001, on page 4

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