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Confirmed Readers Post by :Max_Profit Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :2663

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Confirmed Readers

Dr. Johnson is perhaps our best example of a confirmed reader. Malone once found him sitting in his room roasting apples and reading a history of Birmingham. This staggered even Malone, who was himself a somewhat far-gone reader.

'Don't you find it rather dull?' he ventured to inquire.

'Yes,' replied the Sage, 'it is dull.'

Malone's eyes then rested on the apples, and he remarked he supposed they were for medicine.

'Why, no,' said Johnson; 'I believe they are only there because I wanted something to do. I have been confined to the house for a week, and so you find me roasting apples and reading the history of Birmingham.'

This anecdote pleasingly illustrates the habits of the confirmed reader. Nor let the worldling sneer. Happy is the man who, in the hours of solitude and depression, can read a history of Birmingham. How terrible is the story Welbore Ellis told of Robert Walpole in his magnificent library, trying book after book, and at last, with tears in his eyes, exclaiming: 'It is all in vain: I cannot read!'

Edmund Malone, the Shakespearian commentator and first editor of Boswell's Johnson, was as confirmed a reader as it is possible for a book-collector to be. His own life, by Sir James Prior, is full of good things, and is not so well known as it should be. It smacks of books and bookishness.

Malone, who was an Irishman, was once, so he would have us believe, deeply engaged in politics; but he then fell in love, and the affair, for some unknown reason, ending unhappily, his interest ceased in everything, and he was driven as a last resource to books and writings. Thus are commentators made. They learn in suffering what they observe in the margin. Malone may have been driven to his pursuits, but he took to them kindly, and became a vigorous and skilful book-buyer, operating in the market both on his own behalf and on that of his Irish friends with great success.

His good fortune was enormous, and this although he had a severely restricted notion as to price. He was no reckless bidder, like Mr. Harris, late of Covent Garden, who, just because David Garrick had a fine library of old plays, was determined to have one himself at whatever cost. In Malone's opinion half a guinea was a big price for a book. As he grew older he became less careful, and in 1805, which was seven years before his death, he gave Ford, a Manchester bookseller, L25 for the Editio Princeps of Venus and Adonis. He already had the edition of 1596--a friend had given it him--bound up with Constable's and Daniel's Sonnets and other rarities, but he very naturally yearned after the edition of 1593. He fondly imagined Ford's copy to be unique: there he was wrong, but as he died in that belief, and only gave L25 for his treasure, who dare pity him? His copy now reposes in the Bodleian. He secured Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609) and the first edition of the Rape of Lucrece for two guineas, and accounted half a crown a fair average price for quarto copies of Elizabethan plays.

Malone was a truly amiable man, of private fortune and endearing habits. He lived on terms of intimacy with his brother book-collectors, and when they died attended the sale of their libraries and bid for his favourite lots, grumbling greatly if they were not knocked down to him. At Topham Beauclerk's sale in 1781, which lasted nine days, Malone bought for Lord Charlemont 'the pleasauntest workes of George Gascoigne, Esquire, with the princely pleasures at Kenilworth Castle, 1587.' He got it cheap (L1 7s.), as it wanted a few leaves, which Malone thought he had; but to his horror, when it came to be examined, it was found to want eleven more leaves than he had supposed. 'Poor Mr. Beauclerk,' he writes, 'seems never to have had his books examined or collated, otherwise he would have found out the imperfections.' Malone was far too good a book-collector to suggest a third method of discovering a book's imperfections--namely, reading it. Beauclerk's library only realized L5,011, and as the Duke of Marlborough had a mortgage upon it of L5,000, there must have been after payment of the auctioneer's charges a considerable deficit.

But Malone was more than a book-buyer, more even than a commentator: he was a member of the Literary Club, and the friend of Johnson, Reynolds, and Burke. On July 28, 1789, he went to Burke's place, the Gregories, near Beaconsfield, with Sir Joshua, Wyndham, and Mr. Courtenay, and spent three very agreeable days. The following extract from the recently published Charlemont papers has interest:

'As I walked out before breakfast with Mr. Burke, I proposed to him to revise and enlarge his admirable book on the Sublime and Beautiful, which the experience, reading, and observation of thirty years could not but enable him to improve considerably. But he said the train of his thoughts had gone another way, and the whole bent of his mind turned from such subjects, and that he was much fitter for such speculations at the time he published that book than now.'

Between the Burke of 1758 and the Burke of 1789 there was a difference indeed, but the forcible expressions, 'the train of my thoughts' and 'the whole bent of my mind,' serve to create a new impression of the tremendous energy and fertile vigour of this amazing man. The next day the party went over to Amersham and admired Mr. Drake's trees, and listened to Sir Joshua's criticisms of Mr. Drake's pictures. This was a fortnight after the taking of the Bastille. Burke's hopes were still high. The Revolution had not yet spoilt his temper.

Amongst the Charlemont papers is an amusing tale I do not remember having ever seen before of young Philip Stanhope, the recipient of Lord Chesterfield's famous letters:

'When at Berne, where he passed some of his boyhood in company with Harte and the excellent Mr., now Lord, Eliott (Heathfield of Gibraltar), he was one evening invited to a party where, together with some ladies, there happened to be a considerable number of Bernese senators, a dignified set of elderly gentlemen, aristocratically proud, and perfect strangers to fun. These most potent, grave, and reverend signors were set down to whist, and were so studiously attentive to the game, that the unlucky brat found little difficulty in fastening to the backs of their chairs the flowing tails of their ample periwigs and in cutting, unobserved by them, the tyes of their breeches. This done, he left the room, and presently re-entered crying out, "Fire! Fire!" The affrighted burgomasters suddenly bounced up, and exhibited to the amazed spectators their senatorial heads and backs totally deprived of ornament or covering.'

Young Stanhope was no ordinary child. There is a completeness about this jest which proclaims it a masterpiece. One or other of its points might have occurred to anyone, but to accomplish both at once was to show real distinction.

Sir William Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield's brother, felt no surprise at his nephew's failure to acquire the graces. 'What,' said he, 'could Chesterfield expect? His mother was Dutch, he was educated at Leipsic, and his tutor was a pedant from Oxford.'

Papers which contain anecdotes of this kind carry with them their own recommendation. We hear on all sides complaints--and I hold them to be just complaints--of the abominable high prices of English books. Thirty shillings, thirty-six shillings, are common prices. The thing is too barefaced. His Majesty's Stationery Office set an excellent example. They sell an octavo volume of 460 closely but well-printed pages, provided with an excellent index, for one shilling and elevenpence. There is not much editing, but the quality of it is good.

If anyone is confined to his room, even as Johnson was when Malone found him roasting apples and reading a history of Birmingham, he cannot do better than surround himself with the publications of the Historical Manuscripts Commission; they will cost him next to nothing, tell him something new on every page, revive a host of old memories and scores of half-forgotten names, and perhaps tempt him to become a confirmed reader.


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Confirmed Readers

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