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Bookworms Post by :imported_n/a Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :3807

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Great is bookishness and the charm of books. No doubt there are times and seasons in the lives of most reading men when they rebel against the dust of libraries and kick against the pricks of these monstrously accumulated heaps of words. We all know 'the dark hour' when the vanity of learning and the childishness of merely literary things are brought home to us in such a way as almost to avail to put the pale student out of conceit with his books, and to make him turn from his best-loved authors as from a friend who has outstayed his welcome, whose carriage we wish were at the door. In these unhappy moments we are apt to call to mind the shrewd men we have known, who have been our blithe companions on breezy fells, heathery moor, and by the stream side, who could neither read nor write, or who, at all events, but rarely practised those Cadmean arts. Yet they could tell the time of day by the sun, and steer through the silent night by the stars; and each of them had--as Emerson, a very bookish person, has said--a dial in his mind for the whole bright calendar of the year. How racy was their talk; how wise their judgments on men and things; how well they did all that at the moment seemed worth doing; how universally useful was their garnered experience--their acquired learning! How wily were these illiterates in the pursuit of game--how ready in an emergency! What a charm there is about out-of-door company! Who would not sooner have spent a summer's day with Sir Walter's humble friend, Tom Purday, than with Mr. William Wordsworth of Rydal Mount! It is, we can only suppose, reflections such as these that make country gentlemen and farmers the sworn foes they are of education and the enemies of School Boards.

I only indicate this line of thought to condemn it. Such temptations come from below. Great, we repeat, is bookishness and the charm of books. Even the writings, the ponderous writings, of that portentous parson, the Rev. T.F. Dibdin, with all their lumbering gaiety and dust-choked rapture over first editions, are not hastily to be sent packing to the auction-room. Much red gold did they cost us, these portly tomes, in bygone days, and on our shelves they shall remain till the end of our time, unless our creditors intervene--were it only to remind us of years when our enthusiasms were pure though our tastes may have been crude.

Some years ago Mr. Blades, the famous printer and Caxtonist, published in vellum covers a small volume which he christened The Enemies of Books. It made many friends, and now a revised and enlarged version in comely form, adorned with pictures, and with a few prefatory words by Dr. Garnett, has made its appearance. Mr. Blades himself has left this world for a better one, where--so piety bids us believe--neither fire nor water nor worm can despoil or destroy the pages of heavenly wisdom. But the book-collector must not be caught nursing mere sublunary hopes. There is every reason to believe that in the realms of the blessed the library, like that of Major Ponto, will be small though well selected. Mr. Blades had, as his friend Dr. Garnett observes, a debonair spirit--there was nothing fiery or controversial about him. His attitude towards the human race and its treatment of rare books was rather mournful than angry. For example, under the head of 'Fire,' he has occasion to refer to that great destruction of books of magic which took place at Ephesus, to which St. Luke has called attention in his Acts of the Apostles. Mr. Blades describes this holocaust as righteous, and only permits himself to say in a kind of undertone that he feels a certain mental disquietude and uneasiness at the thought of the loss of more than L18,000 worth of books, which could not but have thrown much light (had they been preserved) on many curious questions of folk-lore. Personally, I am dead against the burning of books. A far worse, because a corrupt, proceeding, was the scandalously horrid fate that befell the monastic libraries at our disgustingly conducted, even if generally beneficent, Reformation. The greedy nobles and landed gentry, who grabbed the ancient foundations of the old religion, cared nothing for the books they found cumbering the walls, and either devoted them to vile domestic uses or sold them in shiploads across the seas. It may well be that the monks--fine, lusty fellows!--cared more for the contents of their fish-ponds than of their libraries; but, at all events, they left the books alone to take their chance--they did not rub their boots with them or sell them at the price of old paper. A man need have a very debonair spirit who does not lose his temper over our blessed Reformation. Mr. Blades, on the whole, managed to keep his.

Passing from fire, Mr. Blades has a good deal to say about water, and the harm it has been allowed to do in our collegiate and cathedral libraries. With really creditable composure he writes: 'Few old libraries in England are now so thoroughly neglected as they were thirty years ago. The state of many of our collegiate and cathedral libraries was at that time simply appalling. I could mention many instances--one especially--where, a window having been left broken for a long time, the ivy had pushed through and crept over a row of books, each of which was worth hundreds of pounds. In rainy weather the water was conducted as by a pipe along the tops of the books, and soaked through the whole.' Ours is indeed a learned Church. Fancy the mingled amazement and dismay of the Dean and Chapter when they were informed that all this mouldering literary trash had 'boodle' in it. 'In another and a smaller collection the rain came through on to a bookcase through a sky-light, saturating continually the top shelf, containing Caxtons and other English books, one of which, although rotten, was sold soon after by permission of the Charity Commissioners for L200.' Oh, those scoundrelly Charity Commissioners! How impertinent has been their interference with the loving care and guardianship of the Lord's property by His lawfully consecrated ministers! By the side of these anthropoid apes, the genuine bookworm, the paper-eating insect, ravenous as he once was, has done comparatively little mischief. Very little seems known of the creature, though the purchaser of Mr. Blades's book becomes the owner of a life-size portrait of the miscreant in one, at all events, of his many shapes. Mr. Birdsall, of Northampton, sent Mr. Blades, in 1879, by post, a fat little worm he had found in an old volume. Mr. Blades did all, and more than all, that could be expected of a humane man to keep the creature alive, actually feeding him with fragments of Caxtons and seventeenth-century literature; but it availed not, for in three weeks the thing died, and as the result of a post-mortem was declared to be Aecophera pseudopretella. Some years later Dr. Garnett, who has spent a long life obliging men of letters, sent Mr. Blades two Athenian worms, which had travelled to this country in a Hebrew Commentary; but, lovely and pleasant in their lives, in their deaths they were not far divided. Mr. Blades, at least, mourned their loss. The energy of bookworms, like that of men, greatly varies. Some go much farther than others. However fair they may start on the same folio, they end very differently. Once upon a time 212 worms began to eat their way through a stout folio printed in the year 1477, by Peter Schoeffer, of Mentz. It was an ungodly race they ran, but let me trace their progress. By the time the sixty-first page was reached all but four had given in, either slinking back the way they came, or perishing en route. By the time the eighty-sixth page had been reached but one was left, and he evidently on his last legs, for he failed to pierce his way through page 87. At the other end of the same book another lot of worms began to bore, hoping, I presume, to meet in the middle, like the makers of submarine tunnels, but the last survivor of this gang only reached the sixty ninth page from the end. Mr. Blades was of opinion that all these worms belonged to the Anobium pertinax. Worms have fallen upon evil days, for, whether modern books are readable or not, they have long since ceased to be edible. The worm's instinct forbids him to 'eat the china clay, the bleaches, the plaster of Paris, the sulphate of barytes, the scores of adulterants now used to mix with the fibre.' Alas, poor worm! Alas, poor author! Neglected by the Anobium pertinax, what chance is there of anyone, man or beast, a hundred years hence reaching his eighty-seventh page!

Time fails me to refer to bookbinders, frontispiece collectors, servants and children, and other enemies of books; but the volume I refer to is to be had of the booksellers, and is a pleasant volume, worthy of all commendation. Its last words set me thinking; they are:

'Even a millionaire will ease his toils, lengthen his life, and add 100 per cent. to his daily pleasures, if he becomes a bibliophile; while to the man of business with a taste for books, who through the day has struggled in the battle of life, with all its irritating rebuffs and anxieties, what a blessed season of pleasurable repose opens upon him as he enters his sanctum, where every article wafts him a welcome and every book is a personal friend!'

As for the millionaire, I frankly say I have no desire his life should be lengthened, and care nothing about adding 100 per cent. to his daily pleasures. He is a nuisance, for he has raised prices nearly 100 per cent. We curse the day when he was told it was the thing to buy old books; and, if he must buy old books, why is he not content with the works of Gibbon, Hume, and Robertson, and Flavius Josephus, that learned Jew? But it is not the millionaire who set me thinking; it is the harassed man of business; and what I am wondering is, whether, in sober truth and earnestness, it is possible for him, as he shuts his library door and finds himself inside, to forget his rebuffs and anxieties--his maturing bills and overdue argosies--and to lose himself over a favourite volume. The 'article' that wafts him welcome I take to be his pipe. That he will put the 'article' into his mouth and smoke it I have no manner of doubt; my dread is lest, in ten minutes' time, the book should have dropt into his lap and the man's eyes be staring into the fire. But for a' that, and a' that--great is bookishness and the charm of books.

(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Bookworms

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