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An 18th-century edition of a book speaks to us in ways much different than a modern edition of the same text. It is a more silent experience. There is no editorial clutter on the page, no one explaining to you why this book is "a classic." You hold in your hands the same book that Thomas Jefferson or Samuel Johnson or Edward Gibbon might have held, and in this sense the distance in time is narrowed. These writers become our contemporaries. Their historical moment is literally before our eyes. The words seem much more immediate, and one has the sense of encountering an original mind thinking rather than a "text book." These books are intended for students to use; they are, of course, to be handled carefully within the rare book room, but they are not museum pieces or holy relics to be stared at in awe.

For scholars, as well, original editions offer a great deal. In the course of two or three centuries, a book may go through several editions, and each editor leaves something out or distorts it in some way according to taste or historical prejudice or mere carelessness. Then someone comes out with a definitive scholarly edition, but that work has so much editorial baggage attached that you have a much different sort of animal before you - important, yes, but it offers a completely different reading experience. It is like looking at the book through very thick scholarly lenses. When you modernize spelling and type-fonts, and when you change the layout on the page to accord with modern editorial conventions, you lose sense of that 18th-century "sensibility" which the original book is an embodiment of. For historical purposes, there is nothing like an early edition.

This collection is centered around Samuel Johnson, in part because the library already had the 1784 edition of A Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson's masterpiece and a monument in the history of the English language. It is an immensely readable work - to be tired of The Dictionary is to be tired of life itself. But Johnson was also the most important literary figure in his day, and he participated in many important developments in eighteenth-century book history, engaging not just in dictionary-making, but also in journalism, book reviewing, editing Shakespeare, publishing anthologies, shaping literary taste and criticism, and so on. He was also the nominal head of "the Club," a literary society that, according to Boswell, "met at the Turk's Head, in Gerrard-street, Soho, one evening in every week, at seven, and generally continued their conversation till a pretty late hour." This club included such luminaries as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, and many others, and of course including Boswell himself. A collection centered around Johnson and his Circle touches almost all aspects of 18th-century culture.