Building The Home Library
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
EVERYBODY ought to own books. A house without books has been well called a literary Sahara ; and how many of them there are ! We are a "reading people" ; but nothing is easier to find than homes in which the furniture, the pictures, the ornaments—everything, is an object of greater care and expense than the library. Is it any wonder that their inmates, whatever their so-called wealth or comfort, are intellectual starvelings?
Among the many wise things that Mr. Beecher has said, there is none wiser than his words about books in the house. "We form judgments of men," says he, "from little things about their houses, of which the owner, perhaps, never thinks. In earlier years when traveling in the West, where taverns were scarce, and in some places unknown, and every settler's house was a house of entertainment, it was a matter of some importance and some experience to select wisely where you should put up. And we always looked for flowers. If there were no trees for shade, no patch of flowers in the yard, we were suspicious of the place. But no matter how rude the cabin or rough the surroundings, if we saw that the window held a little trough for flowers, and that some vines twined about strings let down from the eaves, we were confident that there was some taste and carefulness in the log-cabin. In a new country, where people have to tug for a living, no one will take the trouble to rear flowers unless the love of them is pretty strong; and this taste blossoming out of plain and uncultivated people, is itself a clump of harebells growing out of the seams of a rock. We were seldom misled. A patch of flowers came to signify kind people, clean beds, and good bread. But in other states of society other signs are more significant. Flowers about a rich man's house may signify only that he has a good gardener, or that he has refined neighbors, and does what he sees them do. But men are not accustomed to buy books, unless they want them.
"If on visiting the dwelling of a man of slender means we find that he contents himself with cheap carpets and very plain furniture in order that he may purchase books, he rises at once in our esteem. Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house. The plainest row of books that cloth or paper ever covered is more significant of refinement than the most elaborately carved etagere or sideboard. Give us a house furnished with books rather than furniture. Both, if you can, but books at any rate ! To spend several days in a friend's house, and hunger for some-thing to read, while you are treading on costly carpets and sitting on luxurious chairs and sleeping upon down, is as if one were bribing your body for the sake of cheating your mind. Is it not pitiable to see a man growing rich, augmenting the comfort of home, and lavishing money on ostentatious upholstery, upon the table, upon everything but what the soul needs? We know of many and many a rich man's house where it would not be safe to ask for the commonest English classics. A few garish annuals on the table; a few pictorial monstrosities, together with the stock religious books of his `persuasion,' and that is all. No poets, no essayists, no historians, no travels or biographies, no select fiction, no curious legendary lore. But the wall paper cost three dollars a roll and the carpet cost four dollars a yard !
"Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A home without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books if he has the means to buy them. It is a wrong to his family. He cheats them ! Children learn to read by being in the presence of books. The love of knowledge comes with reading and grows upon it. And the love of knowledge in a young mind is almost a warrant against the inferior excitement of passions and vices. Let us pity these poor rich men who live barrenly in great bookless houses! Let us congratulate the poor that, in our day, books are so cheap that a man may every year add a hundred volumes to his library for the price which his tobacco and his beer would cost him. Among the earliest ambitions to be excited in clerks, workmen, journeymen, and, indeed, among all that are struggling up in life from nothing to something, is that of owning and constantly adding to a library of good books. A little library growing larger every year is an honorable part of a young man's-history. It is a man's duty to have books. A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessaries of life."
In this connection, do you remember Chaucer's "Clerk of Oxenford," who stinted himself in every other way in order that he might have money to buy books?
A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
"To be without books of your own is the abyss of penury ; don't endure it ! " exclaims Ruskin. Lyman Abbott declares that "the home ought no more to be without a library than without a dining-room and kitchen. If you have but one room, and it is lighted by the great wood fire in the flaming fire-place, as Abraham Lincoln's was, do as Abraham Lincoln did: pick out one corner of your fireplace for a library, and use it." Still another truth is well stated by Sir Arthur Helps in a few words : "A man never gets so much good out of a book as when he possesses it."
The influence of the home library upon all the members of the family, and especially the younger ones, can hardly be overstated. The biographies of literary men, and of great men not literary, are full of testimonies to the value of the neighborhood and society of books in early youth. "I like books," says Dr. Holmes, "I was born and bred among them." He has lately told us, in an amusing way, what sort of a library he was "brought up" in; and, great reader though he has been, has lamented that he has not read even more: "It was very largely theological, so that I was walled in by solemn folios, making the shelves bend under the loads of sacred learning. Walton's Polyglot Bible was one of them. 'Poli-synopsis' was another; a black-letter copy of Fox's `Acts and Monuments,' was another, and so on. Higher up on the shelves stood Fleury's `Ecclesiastical History,' in twenty-five volumes octavo. In one of these volumes a bookworm had eaten his way straight through from beginning to end, leaving a round hole through every leaf, as if a small shot had gone through it. My father wrote some verses about it, I recollect, beginning: `See here, my son, what industry can do.' I wish I had profited better by them. I have not been the most indolent of mortals, but the industry of some of my acquaintances . . . makes me feel as if I' had been lazy in comparison. I do not remember whether T have told this in any of my books or not; at any rate, the lesson taught by the book-worm and turned into verse by my father is one by which any young person may profit."
Another contemporary writer, Edmund About, has similarly ascribed his formation of the reading habit to his father's care in collecting a library: "Reading is assuredly an excellent thing, and my father never would forego it, after he had attained some leisure and affluence. By degrees he had obtained five or six hundred well-chosen volumes. He constantly turned over the leaves of the `Encyclopedia of Useful Knowledge,' and Boret's manuals; he had even subscribed with three or four neighbors to a liberal Paris paper; but he prized far above all the knowledge that he had gained quite alone. Gently and patiently he also accustomed me to look and think for myself, in-stead of imposing upon me his ideas, which my docile, submissive spirit would have blindly accepted."
In lieu of a thousand similar utterances, perhaps it will be enough to quote what a veteran journalist, Mr. Charles T. Congdon, has lately written on the encouragement of a love and a care for books on the part of children: "I would early en-courage in children a reverence for books. The need of it is the greater, because school business so tends to raggedness and destruction. And this naturally brings me to a topic which is well worth considering—I mean the care and preservation of books. I have known young people who were highly particular in the conservation of their small libraries ; and I think that this is a tendency which it would be well for parents and guardians to encourage. I argue well of a child who carefully con-serves its books, covers them, and ranges them on a little shelf in a little row. When I encounter this particularity, I see before me future collectors and biliographers in embryo. And what I say to the Raising Children, I would say to adults. It is so hard to get books, and so easy to lend and to lose them. Nobody can have a library unless he takes good care of what comes into it. All the great gatherings have a small start. There is a curious story of the beginning of Richard Heber's magnificent library, which is told in Burton's `Book-Hunter,' and which is worth repeating here, because Burton's `Book-Hunter' has become so scarce. Heber accidentally met with a little volume called `The Vallie of Varieti,' by Henry Peacham. He took it to Mr. Bindley, the celebrated collector, and asked him if it was not a curious book. `Yes,' answered Mr. Bindley, `not very but rather a curious book.' What came of this, those who know anything of the enormous Heber collection will under-stand. From that day forth Richard Heber was a bibliomaniac. lie would travel hundreds of miles to buy a book which he did not possess. . . . In advising young people respecting the formation of a library, my advice would be not to lend but to keep. Nobody can have a decent collection unless he takes good care of it; but it is easier to lose than to acquire. I know nothing like the immorality which pervades the ranks of borrowers. They forget to bring back, and sometimes, I fear, they do not forget. I would not say a word about it, for fear of hurting the feelings of somebody who will find my book-plate in some volume upon his shelf if he will look for it, unless, indeed, he has eradicated it—I would not, I say, speak a word of the matter if I were not writing for children and begging them to keep their books together. It will be such a promising beginning. It will teach such habits of care. It will give them so much pleasure hereafter to look at what so delighted them when the world was new and small things charming. One cannot expect these young people to be learned in Lowndes, or really to know how a book can cumulate in value; but they may take my word for it that what was worth reading, it would be wise to preserve."
I have just happened to find some sensible words of the same sort in a country weekly, the very place where such expressions are likely to do most good to the local public : "Nothing is more important to young people than an early love for good books. In no way can this love be better fostered than by the formation of home libraries. No matter how few or small the books are, to commence with, they will make a beginning, and you will wonder at its growth. Don't have the books scattered about, but collect them. Any boy can make shelves which are good enough, and the very act of getting your books together will form a desire for more. When you have thus made a beginning, make it a rule never to add a poor or `trashy' book. A good book is worth a hundred of the other kind. In this day of cheap books there is no reason why every boy . . . need not have something of a library." And boys may well remember that from such a beginning great results may grow. From no greater a collection than any young reader can easily make, the historian Gibbon tells us that he gradually formed a numerous and select library, "the foundation of my works, and the best comfort of my life, both at home and abroad."
Aside from the reading of books, their mere society and companionship is of high advantage. Boswell tells us that Dr. Johnson thought it well even to look at the backs of books: "No sooner had we made our bow to Mr. Cambridge, in his library, than Johnson ran eagerly to one side of the room, intent on poring over the backs of the books. Sir Joshua (Reynolds) observed (aside), `He runs to the books as I do to the pictures; but I have the advantage. I can see much more of the pictures than he can of the books.' Mr. Cambridge, upon this, politely said, `Dr. Johnson, I am going, with your pardon, to accuse myself, for I have the same custom which I perceive you have.
But it seems odd that we should have such a desire to look at the backs of books.' Johnson, ever ready for contest, instantly started from his reverie, wheeled about and answered, `Sir, the reason is very plain. Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves or we know where we can find information upon it. When we inquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and the backs of books in libraries.' Sir Johua observed to me the extraordinary promptitude with which Johnson flew upon an argument. `Yes,' said I, `he has no formal preparations, no flourishing with his sword; he is through your body in an instant.' " People who are accustomed to know where particular books are, are able to fly to them in an emergency; and sometimes a little library at home, well under-stood, is a more effective armory than a great collection, unknown.
Dr. J. A. Langford, an English writer who has made a graceful and serviceable collection of quotations from English authors on books and reading, cites Charles Lamb's expression : "What a place to be in is an old library!" and then proceeds to speak of the society of books, in a strain of affectionate eloquence with which any booklover can sympathize : "It is a delight to merely look at books—in a state of quiet reverie to dream of the rich fruit which you will not pluck, of the sweet grapes which you will not taste. There, spread before you, is a banquet fit for gods, and the consciousness that you could eat and be satisfied fills up your cup of pleasure to the brim. It is a feast at which the imagination supplies ambrosia and nectar and, for the time coarser food is neither required nor desired. You walk in meadows of asphodel, and in the gardens of the Hesperides, and have no wish to pluck a flower, or to gather the fruit. It is enough that they are there, and the spirits who guard them are ready to supply you with both." Nor is such a sentiment any less likely to come, in a true sense, to the owner of a few books, than to the visitor at the largest library. The true owner of books loves his books, and they come to have real personalities. When poor Southey, after a life of hard work among books, lost his mind, and even the power to read a word, he spent hours and hours in just wandering through his library, feeling his books, and petting them, and laying his head against them.
It is not necessary to advise buyers to possess this or that particular book, nor to present to them a definite list of ten, fifty, a hundred, or a thousand volumes, and say, "Buy these, and you will have a library." Any intelligent person can tell, when he reads a catalogue of publications, or visits a bookstore, what are the standard books of all time, and what are those which are good books for him and his to read. Every one's conscience, too, will tell him books to shun. Some volumes are to be read for a temporary purpose, and the choice of books to own should, of course, be borne in mind. Buy nothing that you are, or will be, ashamed of, and remember that "art is long and time is fleeting." In a word, choose your books as you would choose your friends and helpers.
The collector of a home library should not be discouraged because there are so many books in the world, and he can buy so few. Says Emerson: "I visit occasionally the Cambridge Library, and I can seldom go there without renewing the conviction that the best of it all is already within the four walls of my study at home. The inspection of the catalogue brings me continually back to the few standard writers who are on every private shelf; and to these it can afford only the most slight and casual additions. The crowds and centuries of books are only commentary and elucidation, echoes and weakeners of these few great voices of Time." In precisely the same strain are these words from an editorial in the Pall Mall Gazette, of London: "It is some comfort to reflect that without possessing a library equal to that of the British Museum, and indeed one which can be coaxed into a single room of moderate dimensions, one may have everything in the way of literature which has been so far produced by the human race which is still worth reading—not to say a good deal more. A large collection of English poets, from Chaucer to Cowper, will go upon a small shelf ; and all that has since been written of any importance will fail to fill another. Three-fourths even of that collection is of interest only in a historical sense. And truly it suggests melancholy as well as comfort to look round any decent library, to mark the collected works even of the greatest, and to remember how small is the proportion of grain to chaff."
As for the choice of editions of books to own, a remark of Dr. Johnson's is worth remembering, though, of course, not of universal application: "Books that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful after all."
The care of the home library should chiefly consist of keeping its contents accessible and neat. Books that are imprisoned, or are kept in unfrequented rooms, are deprived of half their usefulness. It is better to have a book worn out with use, or faded by sunlight, or kept where it needs a daily dusting, than to have it preserved like a stuffed bird in a glass case. Open shelves are better than glass-doored bookcases, and the original binding of the book is better than a brownpaper cover. Who would like a friend always dressed in a "duster"? or who would enjoy living in one of those melancholy rooms where all the furniture is shrouded in linen? Brown paper book-covers may be excusable in public libraries, but never in private ones. A few hints, selected from a paper by Mr. S. Boardman, will be found serviceable : "Whatever the room chosen for the library, let it be warm and sunny, on the south side of the house if possible, and plainly furnished, for what furnishing so gorgeous and attractive as good books? An open fire is the only means of warming that should ever be thought of in a library room. . . . And remember; no glazed doors ! I was gratified a few weeks ago, in visiting a friend, to find that he had taken the glazed doors from his library eases ; and I wish everybody who has these useless things would do the same. They are not a protection against dust; they are always in the way; no one is going to carry away your books without leave when you invite him to your library ; and when you want a book you do not care to be bothered by a bunch of keys. Be-sides, books have a far more cheerful and social look when you can readily see them, and handle them, and become acquainted with them, than when they are Iocked up as though you were afraid somebody would read them, or that they would make somebody happy if he could only turn over their magic pages. Open cases, then, for all books in private libraries, especially in what we call `working libraries.' . . . Do not put too much money in expensive and luxuriant bindings. I am not talking to the wealthy bibliophile who is able to employ Bedford, or Pawson, or Charles White to bind his books regardless of cost, but to the average book lover or collector. Put the extra money your fine bindings would cost into more and more serviceable books, and be happy. Choose editions in plain substantial dress, and leave elaborate gilding, and blind tooling, and silk linings, to your exquisite fancier. . . . Books should never be crowded tightly on the shelves. They should be so kindly disposed as to gently support each other. Great injury comes from placing them too closely together. Books are generally taken down from their positions by the top of the backs, and in many, many instances I have seen books, some of which were in their day strongly bound, completely broken away at the back from being pulled carelessly out of position. In removing a book from its place the proper way is first to loosen the books standing each side of the one wanted, by giving them a gentle sideward pressure; then, tipping the book from you at the top and taking hold of the bottom, gently draw it out. Do not pile books flat-ways upon the top of those standing upright in the case. It injures those upon which they rest very much. Re-member the advice of old Richard De Bury, centuries ago, `never to approach a volume with uncleanly hands.' Books are easily soiled, paper and binding retaining the imperfection of the least pressure of unwashed hands. Dust off the books every day, and remember that, like house plants, they need a constant supply of fresh air. They are dear friends. We become attached to them from constant intercourse, and when we remember how much enjoyment we receive from their silent, tender companionship, we should in return treat them well, give them the best room in the house, and teach our children and visitors to pay to them due respect."