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It will never be clear to the lay mind why the book-buyer buys books.
That it is not to read them is certain: the closest inspection always
fails to find him thus engaged. He will talk about them -- all night
if you let him -- wave his hand to them, shake his fist at them, shed
tears over them (in the small hours of the morning); but he will not
read them. Yet it would be rash to infer that he buys his books
without a remote intention of ever reading them. Most book lovers
start with the honest resolution that some day they will ``shut down
on'' this fatal practice. Then they purpose to themselves to enter
into their charmed circle, and close the gates of Paradise behind
them. Then will they read out of nothing but first editions; every day
shall be a debauch in large paper and tall copies; and crushed morocco
shall be familiar to their touch as buckram. Meanwhile, though, books
continue to flaunt their venal charms; it would be cowardice to shun
the fray. In fine, one buys and continues to buy; and the promised
Sabbath never comes.
The process of the purchase is always much the same, therein
resembling the familiar but inferior passion of love. There is the
first sight of the Object, accompanied of a catching of the breath, a
trembling in the limbs, loss of appetite, ungovernable desire, and a
habit of melancholy in secret places. But once possessed, once toyed
with amorously for an hour or two, the Object (as in the inferior
passion aforesaid) takes its destined place on the shelf -- where it
stays. And this saith the scoffer, is all; but even he does not fail
to remark with a certain awe that the owner goeth thereafter as one
possessing a happy secret and radiating an inner glow. Moreover, he is
insufferably conceited, and his conceit waxeth as his coat, now
condemned to a fresh term of servitude, groweth shabbier. And shabby
though his coat may be, yet will he never stoop to renew its pristine
youth and gloss by the price of any book. No man -- no human,
masculine, natural man -- ever sells a book. Men have been known in
moments of thoughtlessness, or compelled by temporary necessity, to
rob, to equivocate, to do murder, to commit what they should not, to
``wince and relent and refrain'' from what they should: these things,
howbeit regrettable, are common to humanity, and may happen to any of
us. But amateur bookselling is foul and unnatural; and it is
noteworthy that our language, so capable of particularity, contains no
distinctive name for the crime. Fortunately it is hardly known to
exist: the face of the public being set against it as a flint -- and
the trade giving such wretched prices.
In book-buying you not infrequently condone an extravagance by the
reflection that this particular purchase will be a good investment,
sordidly considered: that you are not squandering income but sinking
capital. But you know all the time that you are lying. Once possessed,
books develop a personality: they take on a touch of warm human life
that links them in a manner with our kith and kin. Non angli sed
Angeli was the comment of a missionary (old style) on the small human
duodecimos exposed for sale in the Roman market-place; and many a
buyer, when some fair-haired little chattel passed into his
possession, must have felt that here was something vendible no more.
So of these you may well affirm Non libri sed liberi; children now,
adopted into the circle, they shall be trafficked in never again.
There is one exception which has sadly to be made -- one class of men,
of whom I would fain, if possible, have avoided mention, who are
strangers to any such scruples. These be Executors -- a word to be
strongly accented on the penultimate; for, indeed, they are the common
headsmen of collections, and most of all do whet their bloody edge for
harmless books. Hoary, famous old collections, budding young
collections, fair virgin collections of a single author -- all go down
before the executor's remorseless axe. He careth not and he spareth
not. ``The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy,'' and it
is chiefly by the hand of the executor that she doth love to scatter
it. May oblivion be his portion for ever!
Of a truth, the foes of the book-lover are not few. One of the most
insidious, because he cometh at first in friendly, helpful guise, is
the bookbinder. Not in that he bindeth books -- for the fair binding
is the final crown and flower of painful achievement -- but because he
bindeth not: because the weary weeks lapse by and turn to months, and
the months to years, and still the binder bindeth not: and the heart
grows sick with hope deferred. Each morn the maiden binds her hair,
each spring the honeysuckle binds the cottage-porch, each autumn the
harvester binds his sheaves, each winter the iron frost binds lake and
stream, and still the bookbinder he bindeth not. Then a secret voice
whispereth: ``Arise, be a man, and slay him! Take him grossly, full of
bread, with all his crimes broad-blown, as flush as May; At gaming,
swearing, or about some act That hath no relish of salvation in it!''
But when the deed is done, and the floor strewn with fragments of
binder -- still the books remain unbound. You have made all that
horrid mess for nothing, and the weary path has to be trodden over
again. As a general rule, the man in the habit of murdering
bookbinders, though he performs a distinct service to society, only
wastes his own time and takes no personal advantage.
And even supposing that after many days your books return to you in
leathern surcoats bravely tricked with gold, you have scarce yet
weathered the Cape and sailed into halcyon seas. For these books --
well, you kept them many weeks before binding them, that the
oleaginous printer's-ink might fully dry before the necessary
hammering; you forbore to open the pages, that the autocratic binder
might refold the sheets if he pleased; and now that all is over --
consummatum est -- still you cannot properly enjoy the harvest of a
quiet mind. For these purple emperors are not to be read in bed, nor
during meals, nor on the grass with a pipe on Sundays; and these brief
periods are all the whirling times allow you for solid serious
reading. Still, after all, you have them; you can at least pulverise
your friends with the sight; and what have they to show against them?
Probably some miserable score or so of half-bindings, such as lead you
scornfully to quote the hackneyed couplet concerning the poor Indian
whose untutored mind clothes him before but leaves him bare behind.
Let us thank the gods that such things are: that to some of us they
give not poverty nor riches but a few good books in whole bindings.
Dowered with these and (if it be vouchsafed) a cup of Burgundy that is
sound even if it be not old, we can leave to others the foaming grape
of Eastern France that was vintaged in '74, and with it the whole
range of shilling shockers, -- the Barmecidal feast of the purposeful
novelist -- yea, even the countless series that tell of Eminent Women
and Successful Men.
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