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A REVIEW OF BOOKS,
MISCELLANEOUS PIECES IN PROSE AND VERSE.
MY BOOKS. SITTING last winter among my books, and walled round with all the confort and protection which they and my fire-side could afford me, to wit, a table of high-piled books at my back, my writing-desk on one side of me, some shelves on the other, and the feeling of the warm fire at my feet, -I began to consider how I loved the authors of those books ; how I loved them too, not only for the imaginative pleasures they afforded me, but for their making me love the very books themselves, and delight to be in contact with them. I looked sideways at my Spenser, my Theocritus, and my Arabian Nights; then above them at my Italian Poets; then behind me at my Dryden and Pope, my Romances,
my Boccaccio; then on my left side at my Chaucer, who lay on writing-desk; and thought how natural it was in C. L. to give a kiss to an old folio, as I once saw him do to Chapman's Homer. At the same time I wondered how he could sit in that front room of his with nothing but a few unfeeling tables and chairs, or at best a few engravings in trim frames, instead of putting a couple of arm-chairs into the back room with the books in it, where there is but one window. Would I were there, with both the chairs properly filled and one or two more besides ! “ We had talk, Sir," the only talk capable of making one forget the books. Good God! I could cry like one of the Children in the Wood to think how far I and mine are from home; but this would not be “ decent or manly;" so I smile instead, and am philosophic enough to make your heart ache. Besides, I shall love the country I am in more and more, and on the very account for which it angers me at présent.
This is confessing a great pain in the midst of my books. I own it; and yet I feel all the pleasure in them which I have expressed.
Take me, my bookshelves, to your arms,
And shield me from the ills of life. No disparagement to the arms of Stella ; but in neither case is pain a reason why we should not have a high enjoyment of the pleasure. I entrench myself in my books, equally against sorrow and the weather. If the wind comes through a passage, I look about to see how I can fence it off by a better disposition of my moveables: if a melancholy thought is importunate, I give another glance at my Spenser. When I speak of being in contact with my books, I mean it literally. I like to be able to lean my head against them. Living in a southern climate,
though in a part sufficiently northern to feel the winter, I was obliged during that season to take some of the books out of the study, and hang them up near the fire-place in the sitting-room, which is the only room that has such a convenience. I therefore walled myself in, as well as I could, in the manner above mentioned. I took a walk every day, to the astonishment of the Genoese, who used to huddle against a bit of sunny wall, like flies on a chimney-piece. But I did this only that I might so much the more enjoy my English evening. The fire was a wood fire instead of a coal; but I imagined myself in the country. I remembered, at the very worst, that one end of my native land was not nearer the other, than England is to Italy.
While writing this article I am in my study again. Like the rooms in all houses in this country, which are not hovels, it is handsome and ornamented. On one side it looks towards a garden and the mounteins: on another to the mountains and the sea. What signifies all this ? I turn my back upon the sea : I shut up even one of the side windows looking upon the mountains ; and retain no prospect but that of the trees.' On the right and left of me are bookshelves: a bookcase is affectionately open in front of me; and thus kindly enclosed with my books and the green leaves, I write. If all this is too luxurious and effeminate, of all luxuries it is the one that leaves you the most strength. And this is to be said for scholarship in general. It unfits à man for activity – for his bodily part in the world: but it often doubles both
and the sense of his mental duties : and with much indignation against his body, and more against those who tyrannize over the intellectual claims of mankind, the man of letters, like the magician of old, is prepared to “play the devil” with the great men of this world, in a style that astonishes both the sword and the toga.
I do not like this fine large study. I like elegance; I like room to breathe in, and even walk about, when I want to breathe and walk about. I like a great library next my study; but for the study itself, give me a small snug place almost entirely walled with books. There should be only one window in it, looking upon trees. Some prefer a place with few or no books at all; nothing but a chair and a table, like Epictetus: but I should say that these were philosophers, not lovers of books, if I did not recollect that Montaigne was both. He had a study in a round tower, walled as aforesaid. It is true, one forgets one's books while writing: at least they say so. For my part, I think I have them in a sort of sidelong mind's eye; like a second thought, which is none; like a waterfall, or a whispering wind. - I dislike a grand library to study in. I mean an immense apartment, with books all in Museum order, especially wire-safed. I say nothing against the Museum itself, or public libraries. They are capital places to go to, but not to sit in: and talking of this, I hate to read in a public place and in strange company. The jealous silence, - the dissatisfied looks of the messengers, the inability to help yourself, the not knowing whether you really ought to trouble the messengers, much less the Gentleman in black or brown, who is perhaps half a' trustee, with a variety of other jarrings between privacy and publicity, prevent one's settling heartily to work. They say " they manage these things better in France;” and I dare say they do: but I think I should feel still more distrait in France, in spite of the benevolence of the servitors, and the generous profusion of pen, ink, and paper. I should feel as if I were doing nothing but interchanging amenities with polite writers.
A grand private library, which the master of the house also makes his study, never looks to me like a real place of books, much less of authorship. I cannot take kindly to it. It is certainly not out of envy; for three parts of the books are generally trash, .and I can seldom think of the rest and the proprietor together. It reminds me of a fine gentleman, of a collector, of a patron, of Gil Blas and the Marquis of Marialva; of anything but genius and comfort. I have a particular hatred of a round table (not the Round Table, for that was a dining one) covered and irradiated with books; and never met with one in the house of a clever man but once. It is the reverse of Montaigne’s Round Tower. Instead of bringing the books around you, they all seem turning another way, and eluding your hands.
Concious of my propriety and comfort in these matters, I take an interest in the bookcases, as well as books of my friends. I long to meddle, and dispose them after my own notions. When they see this confession, they will acknowledge the virtue I have practised. I believe I did mention his book room to C. L. and I think he told me that he often sat there when alone. It would be hard not to believe him, His library, though not abounding in Greek or Latin (which are the only things to help some persons to an idea of literature) is anything but superficial. The depths of philosophy and poetry are there, the innermost passages of the human heart. It has some Latin, too. It has also an handsome contempt for appearance. It looks like what it is, a selection made at precious intervals from the book-stalls ;
now å Chaucer at nine and twopence ; now a Montaigne or a Sir Thomas Brown at two shillings; now a Jeremy Taylor, a Spinoza; an old English Dramatist, Prior, and Sir Philip Sidney; and the books are “ neat as imported.” The very perusal of the backs is a " discipline of humanity.” There Mr. Southey takes his place again with ago old Radical friend: there Jeremy Collier is at peace with Dryden : there the lion, Martin Luther, lies down with the Quaker lamb, Sewell: there Guzman d’Alfarache thinks himself fit company for Sir Charles Grandison, and has his claims admitted. Even the “high fantastical" Duchess of Newcastle, with her laurel on her head, is received with grave honours, and not the less for declining to trouble herself with the constitutions of her maids. There is an approach to this in the library of W. C. who also includes Italian among his humanities. W. H., I believe, has no books, except mine; but he has Shakspeare and Rousseau by heart. N. who though not a book man by profession, is fond of those who are, and who loves his volume enough to read it across the fields, has his library in the common sitting room, which is hospi'table. H. R.'s books are all too modern and finely bound, which however is not his fault, for they were left him by will, not the most kindly act of the testator. Suppose a man were to bequeath us a great japan chest, three feet by four, with an injunction that it was always to stand on the tea-table. I remember borrowing a book of H.R. which, having lost, I replaced with a copy equally well bound. I am not sure I should have been in such haste, even to return the book, had it been a common looking volume; but the splendour of the loss dazzled me into this ostentatious piece of propriety. I set about restoring it as if I had diminished his fortunes; and waived the privilege a friend has to use a man's things as his own. I may venture upon this profligate theory, not only because candour compels me to say that I hold it in higher matters, with Montaigne, but hecause I have been a meek son