IN a town which I know very well is a certain street, ugly and insignificant even in a town of ugly and insignificant streets, down which I often had occasion to pass. One day I happened to read as I walked — in defiance of prudence and the occulist — a story written in a style and spirit somewhat above the average; a story with a window or two open toward the ideal, the infinite. Ever since, I have found that street most pleasant: interesting figures frequent it, and attractive vistas open out from its unalluring alleys. During one winter in Chicago, I often made the trip from the South Side to the city in a cable-car — that clanging, jerking abomination, most nerve-racking of all possible modes of locomotion. Within the car weary humanity; without, miles of assorted sign-boards. Not that I particularly minded the cable-car; for I was interested in most things, and in those days I had no nerves worth racking. But at least I never associated the cable-car with the glory and the dream. One day, however, I took with me Vanity Fair: and to this day a cable-car brings back to me the wonderful battle-chapter; and the chapter, when I read it in other scenes, finds me riding in a sort of apotheosis of a cable-car, which summarizes and spiritualizes the city’s very soul, — its rush of life, its sense of possibilities, its ever-recurring appeal to something deep and incorrigible in the heart of man.
In this way every book in my library — and a good many that are not there in the flesh — is a mystic storehouse to which I alone carry the key. Places long unvisited, long-lost faces, vanished years— they are pressed like dried leaves between the pages of my books, lending fragrance to the musings of some old philosopher, and borrowing, in return, a more touching dignity and grace. And if sometimes, amid the hurrying days, the desire assails me to go in search of my earlier selves, — those strange-eyed creatures of the past, — I turn to my bookshelves. There are the halls wherein these dim ghosts walk — strangely friendly and familiar if I seek them there.
I have mentioned Vanity Fair; it is one of the best examples. The mere name calls up visions. The first is of a meagre little college library, — one room lined with half-filled shelves, — an Eldorado to me and to many more besides. The college itself was one of those small denominational institutions, holding its head high in the proud consciousness of being self-supporting — a distinction indeed in that land of impecunious colleges and mendicant “universities.” Behind her little table in the corner sat the librarian, a short-haired, round-eyed girl, the sister of one of the professors; herself neither teacher nor pupil, but a sort of mysterious amphibian. Across the room from me sat the divinity-student with the Napoleonic profile, a co-laborer with me in “Beginning Latin,” who sometimes responded to my anxious “Datne regina puellæ rosam ?” after a harrowing period of suspense, with a negative of laborious finality. The queen never did give the girl a rose; and to this day I somehow feel that it is the fault of the divinitystudent; it was his influence, I am sure, that discouraged her unselfish impulses. It was in this library that I read The OldCuriosity Shop, Ivanhoe, Adam Bede — and began Vanity Fair. For I merely began it. I read Dickens eagerly, and found George Eliot’s great mind and heart a most alluring and congenial country from the first; but I abandoned Vanity Fair in disgust at the scene where Jos calls Becky his “diddle-iddle darling,” under the inspiration of the rack punch at Vauxhall. My inherited and acquired Puritanism, the arrogance of my inexperience, revolted at that, and I put Vanity Fair back on the shelf in disgrace. Years afterward, when I again passed through the gates of that teeming, glittering, brilliantly-lighted city of Thackeray’s mind, I wore the wedding-garment; and I shall never forget my solitary jubilee of surprise and rapture. To this day the opening chapters find me back on the golden sand of the beach, the happiest young soul who ever looked up from a book to take blue sky and racing wind into a silent partnership of joy. It is this dear alchemy of books that I wish to celebrate: this power to transmute the baser metals of every-day experience into the fine gold of memory. At least two epochs of my life are already shut up in the pages of Vanity Fair.
The bulky novels of the elder days have this charm to an extraordinary degree; perhaps this is one reason that they have a surer hold upon the memory than the more closely-pruned products of our impatient age. We live with them; they soak up the association of days, even of weeks and months — if we are leisurely readers, and understand reading as a luxury. I have always been glad that a busy household of which I was once a part made Dombey and Son last through a whole blessed season of winter evenings. How many shades of character, tricks of voice, household vicissitudes, and incidents of the day’s work, are stored up in the lavender of its wit and pathos! Old days lie there like folded garments; one has but to unclasp the cedar chest again, and lift them out. Captain Cuttle has rejoiced in my joys; and I have shared many a disappointment with the inimitable, sympathizing Toots.
Did you ever turn over your old schoolbooks after a lapse of years, — “the dogeared Virgil" and the rest ? There is a certain slim, worn, old-maidenish textbook Emerson — “Compensation,” “SelfReliance,” and “The American Scholar” — that transports me instantly back into the storm and stress period, when to reconcile Emerson with“revealed religion” seemed at once the most difficult task in the universe and the whole duty of man. Ruskin, too, and Carlyle: we plunged into them all, wrote copious essays about them, and — at least I can answer for myself and the boy who wrote poetry — actually discussed them out of school. Many immortal phrases get their connotation established once for all in the schoolroom. In my final year at the academy we read “ Sohrab and Rustum; ” and still the beautiful lines,
Of some unskilful gardener has been cut,
Mowing the garden grass-plots near its bed,
And lies, a fragrant tower of purple bloom
On the mown, dying grass, — ”
take me back to our own fragrant little triangular garden on a Sunday evening after church (where we had listened to a sermon on Predestination), with the boy who wrote poetry quoting ardently in the moonlight.
And if you have ever chanced to teach English literature, and have chanced, further, to use some little school-edition which has survived from your own school days, that same little text will have been to you the unique meeting-place of two antipodal sets of associations. It would be hard to find two points of view more clamorously divergent than those of teacher and taught. The Idylls of the King calls up more insistently than any of the rest, I think, my own pedagogical days. A world-famous example of alliteration connotes the freckled grin of the boy who took lizards out of his pockets during study-period; beside the imperishable face of the Lily-Maid rises the disgusted visage of the girl who thought “Elaine was silly to go moping round that way after Lancelot!”
Indeed, as Lamb says, “much depends on when and where you read a book;” and of no book is this truer than of one like Lamb’s own. Those pages beyond praise, — one would think they were already packed with vagrant echoes, delicate reminiscences, flavors fine and fugitive. Yet how readily they receive and keep one’s own — the intimate personal ones we put into them! “New Year’s Eve,” for instance, finds me sitting in a college library (not the remote, provincial one this time, but the decorous, unsocial “department library ” of a big university) and leaves me far from the great highways of the world’s life, looking up from the strange light on my page to marvel at the wonderful coppery radiance of a sunset sky after storm, under which the stretches of rank grass and the masses of the wet green trees show startlingly, unbelievably bright. Since that time, every sunset after storm is sacred to Elia, and brings with it some whisper from his gentle ghost.
If you will think, you will find a book, an essay, perhaps a mere phrase or couplet, for every place where you have lingered on the journey; and which holds in solution, as it were, all that was most characteristic and significant in that phase of your life. Those perfect little lines,
Is shining in the sky,”
were not Wordsworth’s any more than they are mine. They belonged to one who used to mount to the high window in the great empty third-floor hall, — it was only a boarding-school, not a prison, gentle-hearted reader, — to look away across the Virginia hills and find renewal for the day’s petty havoc in watching the evening star light its holy taper at the dying bonfire in the west. Even a young impatient heart could not complain at the monotony of its days in the presence of that joyous routine, lovely from everlasting to everlasting! I learned Lycidas on a series of long rambles; and the gray, ragged, mist-wrapped stretches of that unpretentious landscape merge, as I repeat it, into those “high lawns . . . under the opening eyelids of the morn.” It is a pity ever to read anything but masterpieces; for the place will keep record of the book, as surely as the book keeps record of the time and place.