ON BOOK MISERS (1914)
I confess I have always been rather mean about books. The man who is for ever making new gaps in his shelves and sending his books on all manner of journeys from which they may never return I respect as I would a Tolstoyan Christian, but he is just as far beyond my power of imitation. Once in a blue moon there may come someone who talks about books with so shining and intelligent a face that one could refuse him nothing, from Leaves of Grass to What Maisie Knew, from Tristram Shandy to Cruden’s Concordance. One could lend him one’s second-best Montaigne almost as easily as one’s umbrella. On the whole, however, book borrowers are a race on whom one looks with lowering brows. They are, nine out of ten of them, people who only borrow books because they think so little of them. They believe that, in taking away your first edition of an early Conrad, they are putting themselves less in your debt than if they had asked you for the loan of a bus-fare. They would consume your books like pastries if you would let them. They would no more think of returning you a book after they had read it than a child would think of giving back a peppermint lozenge to its nurse after it had sucked it. This conveying of books is perhaps the commonest of all forms of immorality after the adulteration of the food of the people. It is a sin against which the very school-children prophesy. For who is there who does not remember those jingling maledictions one used to scribble on the fly-leaves of one’s school books—rhymes like :
Black is the raven,
Black the rook,
But blacker he
Who steals this book.
This, it is true, is a curse upon theft, not upon borrowing. But then, what is borrowing a book in most cases but simply stealing it by degrees?
Perhaps it is in defence against the poor honesty of one’s neighbours that one first learns to be a miser among books. But I am afraid the vice is deeper than that. We who hoard up riches in books are original sinners, if ever there were any. For myself, I experienced the greed of books and its excitements even in those early days when I cared a good deal more for idling in the street or along the quays than for reading. When I got a new book there was nothing I resented so much as that someone else should wish to read it before I myself had. I wanted to possess it exclusively in the jealous way in which at that stage one possesses one’s friends. I had a feeling that some mysterious and delightful thing would be gone from the pages if any other eye harvested them before my own. And some other eye always did, for I lived in a house where nearly everyone else could read at a gallop as compared with my own limping pace. Even to cut the pages of a new book gave me a curious satisfaction. It was as if one caught some morning freshness, some aromatic secret, that scarcely outlived the touch of the paper-knife. Probably it is much the same rapture that every pioneer feels. To be first at the North Pole or on the top of a mountain, or turning the leaves of a new book—it is all the same in eagerness if not in daring. It is all part of the passion for newness—the same passion that led the Victorians into the hideous servitude of rococo furniture, and is enticing so many people to-day into the equally hideous service of Cubism and Futurism. The finer type of book-lover knows nothing of this arrogant hunt for novelty. He likes his books thumbed and worn and older than his grandfather, and if they have been read by a dozen generations of men that are now ghosts, so much the better. He has above all the genius of society, and he would no more grudge a neighbour a share of a book than a share of the mid-day sun. This is the kind of man who keeps the second-hand bookshops alive. He gets as much pleasure from turning up the dusty rubbish in the penny box as though he expected to come on his fortune in the heap. He, too, is a pioneer in his own manner; but he loves to discover an old ruin rather than a new country. He could enjoy reading Pearson’s Weekly if only it were two thousand years old. We who are all for novelty feel that the only reason for reading Pearson’s Weekly is that it did not come out later than the day before yesterday. We like the old authors, it is true, but we like them in the newest editions. Our detestation of second-hand books springs, I imagine, from the same selfishness as our detestation of libraries, or, at least, of books borrowed from them. Perhaps the hatred of library books is rooted in an even meaner love of private property. However this may be, I never could read a library book without feeling as if I were eating off somebody else’s plate. The desire for one’s own plate is strong in all men. Yet millions of people go through life, as the saying is, without ever experiencing the equally natural desire for one’s own book. The analogy may not be a perfect one, but it will serve. Nearly everyone who ever reads anything but the latest novels must have a little of this feeling. There are few men who do not like to have a Shakespeare of their own, and none of us would dream of reading a borrowed Marius the Epicurean or a borrowed Ring and the Book except under force of need.
The foundation of all miserliness in regard to books, it may be concluded then, is in the egotism of private property. Like other forms of miserliness, however, it is not merely hunger for things one is going to use—it is hunger for things for their own sake. One begins to buy books because one wants to read them; one ends in buying them because one wishes to have them. Everyone who belongs to the rare race of book-buyers must have found the mere acquisitiveness of books growing upon him more subtly than the taste for quack medicines. With hundreds of books standing unread on his shelves, he is still unable to resist the temptations of a bookshop. He may have all George Moore at home except Mike Fletcher ; but he suddenly feels a distaste for everything Mr. Moore ever wrote—A Mummer’s Wife, A Drama in Muslin, Hail and Farewell! and all the rest of them—except Mike Fletcher. So he goes in and asks for it and, if a flicker of reason survives in him, is relieved to find that it is out of print, or at any rate out of stock. Similarly, though he likes Anthony Trollope less than a meal of sawdust, he finds himself almost against his will one day-going into the bookseller’s and demanding Barchesier Towers as eagerly as if he really wanted to read it. There are a thousand reasons for buying books, and nine hundred and ninety-nine of them are simply the mood of the moment. One is not drawn only to books that one likes, but to books that one hates. It is as if one regarded books as being in themselves a separate world into which it was an excitement to pass by any gate. For myself, I have this feeling for nearly all books except books of bad verse and bad novels. These seem to me to be the very hypocrisies of literature—masquerading things that have as little to do with literature as the bill-of-fare in an eel restaurant. Perhaps it is not quite fair to the bad poets to class them with the bad novelists, for the bad poet is usually at least doing his best. But bad novels one suspects of being written with bad motives. There is not that well-meaningness about them which disarms one in so many of the worst books of verse. The living novelists who can rouse the faintest emotion in the heart of a book-miser could be counted on one’s fingers—almost on the fingers of a single hand. There was a foolish superstition among our grandfathers which made them regard the novel as a trivial form of literature. There is a foolish superstition among ourselves which makes us regard the novel as a serious form of literature. It all depends, of course, on the novelist. You may lay it down as a rule, however, that the only novels worth keeping on your shelves are novels of genius, while nearly any other kind of book is worth keeping that is a book of talent. This is not an argument against reading bad novels, but only against collecting them.
Perhaps one’s passion for the other kind of books, good or middling, cannot be explained altogether as the indecent greed of the collector. It may also represent a sort of magical creed. One has a sort of feeling that even to have The Golden Bough on one’s shelves is a noble extension of one’s knowledge. It is as though one thought books had emanations, and that one had only to live in the same room with them in order to breathe their secrets in. One is born with a sacred thirst for all knowledge, and any book that contains a fact, whether it be the date of Euclid’s birth or a description of the ear-ornaments of the Kikuyu or a recipe for curing rheumatism with the water in which the spinach has been boiled, is a kind of holy book for our inquisitiveness. One longs for universal knowledge, even if it is only by proxy. That is why one goes on adding book to book as Dives added barn to barn, so that a history of the world’s coins stands cheek by jowl on one’s shelves with some religious book of the East, and Aristotle’s Ethics—did anybody ever read it ?—is next neighbour to a volume on Japanese dancing. In the result one’s shelves become little more than a fifth-rate encyclopaedia with several million of the volumes missing. There is nothing to be said in one’s defence except that one has not read the wretched stuff. It would be very pleasant, no doubt, to know all about spiritualism or economics or the formation of vegetable mould through the agency of worms, or about wife-beating in the Middle Ages. If one had a hundred lives, it might be interesting even to read the life of Ninon L’Enclos or the works of Jonathan Edwards or the Stores’ price-list. From this point of view to collect books may be something of an act of faith. There is a fine optimism, indeed, in the very purchase of a complete set of Burke or of Balzac. To make such a purchase is to plunge imaginatively into new existences—to set before one a task impossible to be achieved in the spare moments of a single lifetime. From another point of view this hoarding of books may be as vulgar as accumulating more jewels than you can ever wear or more food than you can ever eat. Thus it is a vice or a virtue according to your fancy. But whichever it may be, if none of us had it, the authors would be considerably poorer. If nobody bought books except those who read them, the publishers of some of those cheap editions of the popular classics would also be leaner and sadder men.