By James Leatham 1893
For him was lever han at his beede’s hed
A twenty bokes, clothed in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philsophie
Than robes riche, or fidel, or sautrie.
Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ (Tyrwhitt’s Text)
You will find on my shelves neither Elzevirs nor Baskervilles, neither black letter folios nor Shakespearian quartos. I have but few books containing plates of Bewick’s, and none at all in the bindings of Zaensdorf or Riviere. Editions de luxe are forbidden fruit, and the radiant reprints of the Kelmscott Press are equally beyond me. Here and thre is to be seen a Pickering; and when I get a good book specially bound for myself I confess to a weakness for half-morocco, gilt tops, and a profusion of hand tooling. But for the most part I am utilitarian in regard to both the paper and the bindings of my books; though many men with a thousand a year are much worse friends to the bookseller.
I do not regard as a brother the man who keeps his books hidden away in boxes and presses. And yet, among those who use books, even he is not the worst. I have heard of literary and scientific men – mostly the latter – who look upon their books as tools merely; and, after they have used them on a given piece of work, dispose of them – keeping practically no books beside them at all. Such creatures are beyond the pale of humanity. They ought to be denied the fellowship of the mediocre living till they learn perforce to value the companionship of the mighty dead. Your true lover of books, your genuine friend of the humanities, wants to have his authors ranked out and sized off around him in shelves of not more than the due depth – the titles and authors’ names looking serenely out upon him as he sits in mid-room able at a glance to apprehend what a goodly company he has gathered under his roof.
A man does not want to be always hobnobbing with his friends; but it is half the good of friendship to know that Tom, Dick and Harry are there, and are your friends when you want them. As we never miss the water till the well runs dry, so we do not realise how much to us is even the sight of books till one day we find ourselves stranded somewhere away from the resources of civilisation for six weeks with no more numerous company than Henry’s Bible, Boston’s ‘Fourfold State,’ ‘The Saints Everlasting Rest,’ ‘Grace, Abounding,’ and one or other of Cassell’s compilations.
When the average Philistine looks round your walls and asks ‘have you read all these?’ he is puzzled and sometimes contemptuous if you answer, ‘No, and never shall.’ To a person of ideas a library is a dictionary; and even a Philistine would admit that one is not expected to read one’s dictionary through. It is not enough that we have as many books as we can read. One does not want to sit down to dinner at a table which bears only the number of dishes and the quantity of food on each which he can eat. As regards both the food of the mind and that of the body, man wants alternatives – the power of choice. Apart from works that are chiefly valuable for purposes of reference, there are other books which we want to dip into only occasionally -such as Boswell’s ‘Johnson’ and Coleridge’s ‘Table Talk’ which one can open almost anywhere and read on with profit. These you want to have by you in abundance. Others, again, have their texture so closely woven that you must begin at the foremost end of the web and follow their fabric, not only inch by inch, but thread by thread, or, to drop metaphor, not only paragraph by paragraph – taking in the contents of a page, as Carlyle said, with a sweep of the eye – but line by line; in short, reading your author, and not merely skimming him. Such books can only be properly tackled at times and seasons. Whether one shall read or not in a spare half-hour depends so much on whether the book for the mood is there that one must have a large choice. Johnson was eminently right when he insisted on the benefits of promiscuous borrowing in a library. Even the bee – type of industry as she is – does not gather all the honey from every flower she visits. There is something quite formidable about the person who can sit down to a book like ‘The Decline and Fall’ and clear off thirteen centuries of Roman history with the mechanical persistency of a bricklayer piling his cubes.
I am prepared to admit to the collector’s weaknesses for broad margins, hand-made paper, deckled edges, eighteenth century woodcuts, quaint head and tail pieces and the sometimes absurd chapter initials of our grandfathers’ grandfathers. Yet no one pretends to deny that the subject and style of a book are not more than its mechanical get-up, and much more than such adventitious circumstances as its age, its being a first edition, or its having belonged to a great man whose autograph it bears. To show that a book is more to me than its incidentals, I may tell you that, economy apart, I don’t mind a book remaining in the publisher’s covers. Sometimes the machine stamped case is more artistic and better finished than the hand work of the binder. For first editions, moreover, I care less than nothing at all. As second thoughts are better than first, so subsequent editions are better than first ones. One can never judge of one’s work either in MS or in proof-sheet. The joy and pride of creation takes months to wear off even after they have begun to abate, and that process does not properly set in till one has seen one’s thoughts duly printed and sent forth to the world. What man is there who, having published a book or pamphlet, has not found dozens of ideas occur to him after his first edition is away, and wants a second in order that he may get these in, as also that he may improve defects of grammar and syntax that he did not notice in reading the proofs? You can’t thoroughly criticise your writing till it is at least a year old. It takes the four seasons to wean us from the conceit of proprietorship. Indeed, it often happens that an author does not get outside one piece of work till he had undergone the throes of parturition with another. And so first editions move me not.
Somebody must read new books. In fact, that is what we feed and tame the reviewer to do; although ‘tis said he scamps his work. For my own part, I prefer to read old and famed books, as Emerson advises, ‘Be sure, then, to read no mean books,’ says he. ‘Shun the spawn of the press on the gossip of the hour. Do not read what you shall learn, without asking, the street and the train.’
In the library of a wise man there is one department of literature that should be but sparingly represented: I mean prose fiction. Life is short, and in novels one must read much to learn little. Modern novelists have mostly forgot – if they ever knew – the original purpose of the novel. As conceived by Richardson, the first novelist, it was to convey information and ‘moral reflections’ through the medium of a story – the plot to stand in the same relation to the solid, informative part of the work as the string of a necklace does to the beads. To make the social and psychological value of the early novels still greater, the types of character brought together in them were always distinct, illustrating the thought, speech, and manners of a whole class. Now, however, the novel is all string and no beads. The favourites are writers who give no information, who never generalise, who have no discernible social or psychological purpose in view, whose characters are not types, but simply people to whom things happen. A novelist is esteemed by the average reader to-day, not for how much he can teach through the medium of his art, but for the directness of his narrative and its exclusion of everything except the dialogue, incidents, and ‘situations’ strictly needed to help on the plot. Meredith, George Eliot, and Mrs. Humphrey Ward are among the shining exceptions to this rule; but the fact that they are not as popular as Rider Haggard shows that their writing is not the kind of thing the public wants and is accustomed to.
Walter Scott is an example of the old useful school. Scott tells us about feudalism, chivalry, the chase, and the tilt-yard; about the architecture and ecclesiastical institutions of the Middle Ages, the methods of tillage practised then, the beasts that roamed wild in the forests, the customs of the people, their food, their dress, their rude houses and furniture, their minstrelsy, their outdoor sports. He gives us historical portraits which, if not always full and fair, at least have a tendency to send the reader to sources where he will get them both full and fair. In these Waverley Novels we get glimpses of monastic life and the medieval secret societies and tribunals, such as the Vehmgericht; also of the practice of handfasting as it obtained among the borderers, and according to which a man and woman lived together for a short probationary period before marriage, to test their mutual fitness for the conjugal traces. Something of all this is to be learned from Scott. The beads are strung upon a thread of narrative usually absorbing,* written in a certain loose but sonorous style, and characterised by fine dry humour, bold delineation of character, and description not less spirited for being faithful. For a boy to know Scott is the beginning of a liberal education. I know of no writer who does so much to beget and foster intellectual interest. But in spite of all this, Scott is not generally in favour. Young whipper-snappers sneer at him because he wrote ‘Rob Roy’ and ‘Count Robert of Paris,’ and are prepared to uphold against him the authors of ‘She’ and ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.’ Which tells its own tale.
*(the plot of a novel like ‘The Antiquary’ is as subtle, and the upshot as unexpected, as any entanglement I have met with in the whole range of fiction, ancient or modern.)
The fault of the novel is that it is so largely concerned with ‘machinery.’ In literature one wants life experiences clarified and concentrated. To read of railway journeys and sea voyages, to eat other people’s dinners over again in black and white, to wade through pages upon pages of non-didactic dialogue or descriptions of faces and postures – all this is too tiresome even if it were not to unprofitable. Novels are good enough for people who can’t assimilate an idea unless it is presented in a pictoral or dramatic setting, or for those who don’t want ideas at all, but read merely to kill the time in life which they don’t know how to use. To those who read to learn, Green’s History is vastly more entertaining than the best society novel; and as regards the great majority of novels of all sorts, it is only the sober fact to say of them that truth is especially stranger to that sort of fiction.
Emerson is exceedingly felicitous in his statement of what it is we get in real literature. In the essay (on ‘Books’) from which I have already quoted he says:
‘Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries, in a thousand years, have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom. The men themselves were hid and inaccessible, solitary, impatient of interruption, fenced by etiquette; but the thought which they did not uncover to their bosom friend is here written out in transparent words to us, the strangers of another age.’
With such associates, the wonder is that the bibliophile is not more jealous of his time and more exclusive as to the company he keeps. Not every person can meet on terms of equality with the man who has assimilated the best thoughts of Plato and Shakespeare, of More and Bacon, of Locke and Johnson and Adam Smith and Goethe.
These friends are like no others in that they give so much in return for your mere attention. The theatre goer pays five shillings for a stall and two hours’ amusement; though he has no guarantee that he will not be bored. For the same sum well expended I may go home with a month’s good reading and have something to enliven the walls of my room and give it an individuality, to say nothing of getting part of my money back again if I want to sell the book. The friendship of the immortals costs little to gain and less to retain. My every-day friends talk and I must listen, though the best of their news may be that they had new potatoes for dinner to-day. The friends of the intellect are silent till you bid them speak; they do not talk small beer (or new potatoes); and they are dumb again if you do but withdraw your attention from them. Shakespeare never stays too long; More is never prosy; Goldsmith and Elia are never dull. They don’t tilt over your chairs to the hazard of the connection between back and seat; neither do they sit with your hearthrug doubled up under their muddy boots or chair leg. With all the virtues of your most brilliant friends they have none of the defects of your dull ones.
Let no collector of stamps or coins, no ‘bringer together of useless posts and crocks’ uprear his head and attempt to justify his hobby as against the love of books. To the student sail argosies from all lands and from all times laden with treasures that thieves do not break through and steal, for knowledge is the least coveted of all forms of wealth. To the book-lover time and space and seasons hardly count. In one day he may in spirit be in all four corners of the globe without stirring beyond his own room. While ‘icicles hang by the wall’ and frost-work landscapes cover his window, he may sail beneath a tropic sun among islands that ‘lift their fronded palms in air.’ With Plato he may listen to Socrates winding a cocksure opponent round his finger in the market-place at Athens. With Flaubert he may wander through barbaric Carthaginian streets or look shudderingly on the ghastly rites of the worship of Moloch. On a sultry summer afternoon he may lie, pipe in mouth, behind a hedge, while his fancy follows the Turkish host in its last deadly-desperate assault on Constantinople – may read of that line of attack whose composition and movements are described by Gibbon with all the pomp of his stately style:
The foremost rank consisted of the refuse of the hose, a voluntary crowd who fought without order or command – of the feebleness of age or childhood, of peasants or vagrants, of all who had joined the camp in the blind hope of plunder and martyrdom. The common impulse drove them to the walls; the most audacious to climb were instantly precipitated; and not a dart, not a bullet of the Christians was idly wasted on the accumulated throng. But their strength and their ammunition were wasted in this laborious defence. The ditch was filled with the bodies of the slain, and of this devoted vanguard to death was more serviceable than the life.
The Fall of Constantinople had its advantages to European science and philosophy; but the lover of books will read of occurences more directly serviceable to human progress which were yet unattended by any of the horrors depicted by Gibbon.
But probably enough has been said. Book-lovers are, perhaps, seldom made. I fancy they are mostly born. I think it would be noted that the boy who is to love and cherish books in after life has already a way of his own of handling them. This passion will be the only one he will never regret. In health and in sickness, in summer and winter, in wet day and dry, books, the choicest heritage of the ages, will be to him the best of friends. He may love a woman to be jilted, and he may live to see her the drudge and slattern of another. He may rear daughters to hand them over to young fellows whom he despises. He may see his chiefest chum take to drink and become a blear-eyed, prematurely aged wretch, with shaky hand and fetid breath, impoverished in means, feeble in mind, and foul in body. Without being selfishly careless or stupidly absorbed through all this, books may still afford him a joy that never palls, a bliss without alloy, a gain that has no offsets. In youth they will open and furnish his mind, lifting him clear-eyed, from out the ruck of mortals. In his prime they will tone down the vanity of success in him by presenting ideals and exemplars that beggar his little local achievements. In old age they will be his consolation amid failing powers and the neglect of the young world. Death alone need separate him from these best of friends.
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