The Convention of Books
ONCE upon a time there was an Old Librarian who, attending a convention of his profession, closed his eyes. This was not because the papers were uninteresting; nor was it because they were not important if true, for they were both important and true. But the papers were many and the librarian was no longer young; therefore he closed his eyes that he might more easily follow the thought. So he followed the thought until he was out of hearing of the somewhat too even voice of the gentleman who was reading.
Suddenly he found himself in a convention of books. Now, the librarian had always loved books, and had cared for their safety, and had planned to extend their usefulness. But in the country to which he had been transported the conditions are reversed. The books assume responsibility for the care of their readers, and arrange them in order and decide upon their merits. For the books in their own country set great store by their readers. When a book misplaces its readers, or loses them, it is looked upon as unskillful. It is no small achievement for a book to look after a large collection of miscellaneous readers, and to select those that are valuable.
When the Old Librarian arrived, the convention hall was almost full. There were books of all sizes and ages, all engaged in animated conversation. There were venerable folios, grave middle-aged quartos, flashy young duodecimos. Blueblooded classics were elbowed by pushing “best-sellers.” Shabby odd volumes shambled about, looking for members of their family circle from whom they had been separated for years. Now and then a superannuated Text-Book, lean and haggard, would ask for information from a pert young fellow who had once been his pupil. A slight willowy Poem would trip along with a look of vague inquiry in her innocent eyes, as if she were seeking some one who would tell her what she was all about. She would draw her dainty singing robes around her to avoid the touch of some horny-handed son of prose with the dust of the Census Bureau yet upon him. There were grave, learned books who were spoken of with bated breath as “ Authorities; ” and there were “ Original Sources,” aristocrats of long lineage, who still clung to the antique garb of their youth.
There were few in the company who ventured upon any familiarity with these worthies. It was however whispered by an enterprising Thesis, who had made their acquaintance, that some of them, in their own day and generation, had been rather common.
Near the doors were groups of halfgrowm pamphlets who had not yet reached the dignity of full book-hood. They formed a disturbing element, and it was a question whether they should be admitted to the floor, it being very difficult to keep these unbound hobbledehoys in order.
The Old Librarian was not one of those indefatigable persons who can sit through all the meetings furnished by conscientious programme-makers. He was glad that so many papers were provided at all hours, but there was a touch of altruism in his nature, so that he rejoiced in the thought of the information which the minds of others received wdiile his own lay fallow. After the convention had been opened, he wandered in a leisurely way from one section to another, listening to such of the discussions as interested him, and observing how the books conducted their business.
There was much wrangling over the report of the Committee on Credentials, as there was a great difference of opinion as to what constitutes a book. It is an old controversy between the strict constructionists and those of more democratic tendencies. In this case the strict constructionists were outvoted, and the Old Librarian noticed a number of volumes taking part in the proceedings, to whom he would not have given the privileges of the floor.
There was one general subject for discussion, “The Care of Readers,” but each section considered its own questions of technique. Never had the Old Librarian been so impressed with the sense of the importance of readers. The president in his opening address declared that the reader could no longer be treated as a negligible quantity. Readers might be said to be almost essential to the existence of books. It was a great satisfaction to the Old Librarian to hear this, for he had often been grieved at the haughty airs of certain of the more learned books who had refused to make any allowance for the natural infirmities of their readers. They would lead them into verbal labyrinths and heartlessly leave them there, laughing with erudite glee at their confusion. But this was not the spirit of the convention.
The Old Librarian listened with much interest to a paper on “ The Classification of Readers.” The readers were classified according to the natural method, —
The readers who read through,
The readers who read at,
The readers who read in,
The readers who read round about,
And the well-beloved readers who read between the lines.
Boswell’s Life of Johnson said that he was accustomed to divide readers into two classes, the herbivorous and the carnivorous. The herbivorous reader is a quiet, ruminating creature who likes to browse in a library. He could best illustrate the characteristic of the carnivorous species by quoting a note that he had made of Dr. Johnson’s way of reading. “ He seemed to read it ravenously as if he devoured it. He knows how to read better than any one ... he gets at the substance of a book directly, he tears the heart out of it. He kept it wrapt up in the table-cloth in his lap the time of dinner, resembling (if I may use so coarse a simile) a dog who holds a bone in his paws in reserve while he eats something else that is thrown at him.”
“How shocking!” said Mrs. Hemans’s Poems, shuddering.
“ Do not be alarmed, madam. I was only using a figure of speech.”
A paper was read on “The Treatment of Ephemeral Readers; how they may be catalogued to be made available during their lifetime and retired with the least time and labor.”
There was some difference of opinion as to what constitutes an ephemeral reader. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason defined him as one who never got beyond the title-page. He never felt that a reader was worth cataloguing unless he had got into the first chapter. He was sorry to say that most of his readers belonged, not to the class that reads in, but to that which only reads about.
Royce’s The World and the Individual remarked that he had noticed a good many of these second-hand readers of Kant lying around in the colleges.
“ I wonder,” said The Spectator, “ why so many readers insist on forcing themselves into the company of books that are above their station in life. They must know that they would be happier with those of their own class.”
“ I remember a remark of Dr. Johnson which may throw some light on the situation,” said Boswell’s Life of Johnson._ “ It was one day when we visited the Pantheon in London, then newly opened as a place of entertainment. I said, when I had paid the entrance fee, ' There’s not a half-guinea’s worth of pleasure in seeing this place.’ To which Dr. Johnson replied, ‘But, sir, there’s half a guinea’s worth of inferiority to other people in not having seen it.’ ”
“ It’s lucky that so many readers have that amiable weakness,” drawled Lord Chesterfield’s Letters. “ Those big-wigs over there,” pointing to the World’s Classics, “ would n’t be dressed in full morocco if it were n’t that every blessed reader is willing to give his guineas to be saved from the inferiority of not knowing them.”
Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy rose from his chair with some effort, to resent what seemed to him an unworthy fling at the readers whose reading was done by proxy.
“ I have been highly esteemed and kept in good reputation by successive generations that have taken me on trust. They slap me on the back and call me ‘ Good old Burton,’ and ‘ Quaint old Burton,’ and quote somebody who quoted somebody I quoted. I have no doubt but that they will keep it up for several hundred years longer. Is n’t it just as well as if they actually took the trouble to read me? They certainly have kept up a pleasant speaking acquaintance.”
The Complete Works of Josephus, neatly attired in calf, arose to testify to his approval of the philosophical remarks of his young friend. Two hundred years is a short time in the life of a book. As for himself, he was approaching his second millennium, and he was happy to say that his circulation was still good. Since his first publication no generation had arisen that knew not Josephus. He attributed his longevity to his regular habits. He had very early got himself talked about in learned and semi-learned circles. Works dealing in a popular way with Hebrew history are accustomed to say to their readers, “ See Josephus.”
“ Do the readers see you ? ” asked a thin, anxious-looking commentary.
“ That is immaterial,” answered the Complete Works. “ They like to have me near at hand, so that they can see me in case of emergency. If one is asked to address a meeting of Sunday-school teachers it is a great convenience to be able to say, ‘ Herod Antipas must not be confounded with Herod the Tetrarch, as is well known by every reader of Josephus.’ Now, every one is liable to be asked to address a meeting of Sundayschool teachers at some time or other, and it gives a feeling of security to have me at hand. Of course a narrow-minded person may deny that readers of this kind should be included in the card catalogue, but I should not know what to do without them. But for them I should be as lonesome as my old friend Philo of Alexandria. He had a great reputation in his day, but he is now known only to scholars. There is no distinction in that, for scholars are willing to know anything.”
The Letters of Junius said that he had spent a great deal of time in the study of readers, endeavoring to find out what became of them. The more he looked into the matter, the more the mystery deepened. It was not merely the fugitive reader that disappeared. He supposed that every book here that had made a collection could tell of serious losses.
Friendship’s Garland, a single volume of uncertain age, said that she had been greatly troubled in this way. All her readers had mysteriously disappeared without fault of her own. Far be it from her to cast suspicion upon her fellow books, but she feared that, if an investigation were made, it might be found that some of them had readers that did n’t belong to them.
Rollin’s Ancient History said that once he had a large number of readers that he had collected with much industry. They had disappeared one by one. He supposed that it was now too late to recover them. Works of Fiction had at one time been accused of purloining readers from unsuspecting Histories. He had noticed a gang of Historical Romances loafing in the vicinity. They were suspicious characters living without visible means of support. Many years ago Thaddeusof Warsaw had borrowed some of his readers and had never returned them. He had, however, been told that of late there had been a reformation among Works of Fiction and that they are becoming quite serious.
“ That is true,” said a sad-faced problematic novel. “There is no danger to be apprehended from us. We are poor but honest.”
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remarked that while such petty larcenies as those of which Thaddeus of Warsaw was accused were to be reprehended, we must push the investigations to the books higher up. He himself had lost some valuable readers. “We must protect ourselves from the depredations of certain malefactors of great literary wealth.”
As he sat down he cast a searching glance at the Waverley Novels.
“ I hope that all questions involving property rights in readers may be submitted to arbitration,” said Disraeli’s Quarrels of Authors. “ It would save much ink-shed.”
“ As for the losses of our honorable friend the Decline and Fall, perhaps another explanation might be given,” said Horace Walpole’s Letters. “ It may only be that his readers are mortal. There was a remark of my Lord Chesterfield that was famous in its day. When he and his friend Lord Tyrawley had been missed from the gay society in which they had been ornaments, my Lord explained, ‘Tyrawley and I have been dead these two years, but we don’t choose to have it known.’ ”
“ Do you know,” said James’s Pragmatism, “that I sometimes think that we books take ourselves too seriously. Why should n’t our readers slip away from us if they can ? It shows their sense. Just because we are bound volumes and sport a table of contents, we think there must be something in us. Sometimes there is, but the relation between printed matter and mind is variable. There is a great deal of superstition in the assumption of our educational value. It is far from absolute. I should n’t wonder if we were some day put out of business by the fifteen-cent magazines.”
“ Hear! hear! ” cried Poole’s Index.
It all depends,” said The Strenuous Life, “ on the man behind the book. Now in Africa — ”
“ Speaking of Africa and of educational values,” interrupted Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa, “ I have seen a good deal of them both. If you don’t mind my repeating myself, I will tell you of a little experience I had. It was some time after I had escaped from Tiggeity Sego, and I was taking leave of the Dooty of Dingyee. I had stayed over night with an old Foulah whose name I now forget. In the morning, as I was about to depart, he, with a great deal of diffidence, begged me to give him a lock of my hair. He had been told that a white man’s hair made a saphie (charm) that would give the possessor all the knowledge of white men. I had never before heard of so simple a mode of education, but instantly complied with the request; but my landlord’s thirst for learning was such that with cutting and pulling he cropped one side of my head pretty closely, and would have done the same with the other had I not sigfied my disapprobation by putting on my hat and assuring him that I wished to reserve some of the precious merchandise for a future occasion.”
“ I must make a note of that,” said G. Stanley Hall’s Adolescence, taking out his fountain pen. “ It is a very interesting variation in pedagogy. Here is Mr. Mungo Park who tells us that in Wassiboo it was supposed that a liberal education could be obtained by cutting off the hair of any traveling gentleman of the Caucasian race. The candidate for a degree evidently followed a strict curriculum. In our colleges, on the other hand, our adolescents firmly believe that a liberal education may be obtained by allowing the hair to grow long and thick about the time of the autumnal equinox. This is a survival of the ancient cult of the gridiron, which is connected with human sacrifices.”
“ After all,” said Sir Thomas Browne’s Vulgar Errors, “ there is a good deal to be said in behalf of this capillary theory of education. It indicates that even in modern times the primitive notion is preserved that education has something to do with the head. The only dubiety is as to whether the educational process shall go on internally or externally. This is but a detail. The superstition that is more common is one by which we books profit. There are those who attribute to us a magic which produces results altogether independent of any activity either within the cerebral cavity or on the superficies of the cranium. They imagine that a book is a perfect substitute for the fatiguing process of cerebration. Such readers would consider it a work of supererogation to use their own heads. I would admit that this superstition is less rational than that to which our friend Travels in the Interior of Africa refers, but the question is, Should we disturb it ? We books must live. Of course we know that we are not really wiser than the people who write us, and we may know no more than the people who read us, but should we take the public into our confidence ? ”
At this point Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy arose and inquired anxiously whether any reporters were present. On being assured that there were none, he said that he would venture to remark that every book is as wise as he looks and every reader as wise as he feels.
“ Still,” said Hill’s Rhetoric, “ we must remember that we all make mistakes. No book is a hero to his own proof-reader.”
Pope’s Essay on Criticism asked to be allowed to correct his learned friend the Vulgar Errors, who had accused certain passive readers of not using their heads. It was only fair to say that they allowed their heads to be used free of charge. They were useful as storehouses.
Miscellaneous material left in cold storage was never interfered with, and when called for was found in the same condition in which it arrived. He would therefore repeat the tribute which he had given some time since to
With loads of learned lumber in his head.
“ In behalf of some of the most respectable books here present, I would return thanks for such repositories.”
Marie Corelli’s Works then read a paper entitled “A Heavy Plea for Light Readers.” She argued that the economic law of supply and demand should be more fully recognized in high critical circles. She also argued against government by injunction. A bench of critics had no right to enjoin light readers who were engaged in the pursuit of happiness.
In the discussion that followed, complaint was made that the most troublesome reader of the lighter sort was the humorous reader. He was always finding in a book something which the author had not intended to be seen.
In order to weed out such readers, it was moved that a committee be appointed to be composed of the clerical members of the convention. It was hoped that their professional gravity might have a restraining effect on those addicted to the lighter vein.
The chair appointed the Wit and Wisdom of the Rev. Sydney Smith, A Sentimental Journey of the Rev. Laurence Sterne, the Lyrics of the Rev. Robert Herrick, and the Complete Works of the Very Reverend Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s. The Dunciad called attention to one “ who sits and shakes in Rabelais’ easy chair,” and said that it should not be forgotten that Rabelais was of the cloth. The chairman declared that it might as well be forgotten, and that he would so rule.
By way of interlude, Chesterton’s Essays consented to entertain the company as a prestidigitator. He was not he explained, a prestidigitator, but that made no difference.
“ Ladies and gentlemen,” said the Essays, “ I will not flatter you by saying ' a penny for your thoughts.’ I never pay more than the market price for such articles; but I will ask you to lend me a few thoughts, if you happen to have any about you. Any simple little thing will do; all I ask is that it shall have been long enough in your possession to make you think that it is your own.”
Several truisms were handed up, together with one or two brand-new paradoxes.
“ Thank you, ladies and gentlemen; be sure not to take your eyes off your thoughts while they are in my hands; something might happen to them. I suppose you want them back ? Certainly, you shall have them. They are of no value except to the owner, but I understand your feeling about them, they have associations. Here they are! By my faith, they do look different.
“ Here, madam, is your Orthodoxy, which you handed me just now. It’s the newest thing out. So original! How did you happen to get an idea that nobody ever happened on before? It’s a great find, and yet you were so demure about it I was deceived at first: you seemed to take it as a mere matter of course. And here, sir, is your Heresy which you allowed me to examine. If you take a good look at it you will see the name of Athanasius stamped on the right-hand corner. It’s genuine old-fashioned fourth-century orthodoxy, sixteen hundred years old, if it is a day. It’s greatly to your credit that you have it in your possession, for I trust you came by it honestly.
“ Will any other lady or gentleman lend me a thought? ”
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations handed up “ And things are not what they seem,”
“ Quite so,” said the Essays, “ that’s what people generally suppose, but of course the fact is just the contrary. Things are things, and that is just what they seem to be. It is you who are not what you seem. You seem to be philosophizing on the nature of things, but if you would stop to consider you would be convinced that you are doing nothing of the kind.”
The Familiar Quotations acknowledged that this was perfectly true.
“ There must be some trick about all this, I can but think,” said a small thin book who stood at the back of the hall.
“Did I hear correctly?” asked the Essays. “ Did you assert, ' I can but think ’ ? Why, my dear sir, that is the one thing you cannot do.
“ Ladies and gentlemen, I suppose some of you have by this time got the idea that I am quite clever and original because I have so many ideas that are different from your own. I assure you that you are altogether mistaken. It is you who are clever, having so many ideas that I can differ from. I am only a plain, plodding, literal-minded person, who cannot understand your brilliant paradoxes. I have contracted the habit of contradicting them at sight, and in nine cases out of ten it turns out that I am right. The results are monotonous, but I can’t help that.”
The Old Librarian shook his head doubtfully, for he had always enjoyed the Essays, and in spite of his disclaimer he felt that he was really very clever after all. He remembered an illuminating remark of his: “ I never in my life said anything because I thought it was funny; though of course I may have had ordinary human vain-glory and may have thought it funny because I said it.
“ It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin which never existed; it is another thing to discover that a rhinoceros does exist, and then to take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he did n’t.”
“ I think we owe a great debt,” said the Old Librarian, “ to one who makes a specialty of the things which are true and which look as if they were n’t. When the mind gets sluggish from lack of sufficiently varied exercise, and can move only one way, I believe there is great benefit in going to some one like the Essays for vigorous osteopathic treatment.”
The spirit of the convention was thoroughly democratic, and yet there was a tendency for certain congenial books to get together. Various groups were thus formed by their natural affinity for certain readers. No greater pleasure exists for the reader than to select the book friends in whose company he has spent many hours, and the books have the same feelings. They always think that their own readers are the best. The Old Librarian had some compunction of conscience when he remembered that he had been compelled to force so many volumes into unnatural and irksome companionship, and to bring them together according to subjects instead of according to personal likings.
He fell in with Sir John Lubbock’s Best Books, and the Heart of Oak, and many Select Libraries. There were little groups gathered around veterans who were giving reminiscences of readers they had known. Homer’s Iliad told about nights he had spent with Alexander the Great. After the battle they two would refresh their souls with talk about Achilles and windy Troy. Plato’s Republic recalled the converse with Hadrian and Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, when they were doing all that heroic rulers could do to arrest the decay of the Roman Empire. When that plan failed he had communed with Augustine in regard to the City of God that was to be the new spiritual empire. After the invasion of the barbarians, he said, he had taken several centuries off, leaving his friend Aristotle to wrestle with the ignorance of the times. About the fifteenth century he had returned to active life much refreshed, and since than he had known intimately all the men of light and leading. He had, however, little time to dwell upon the past, as the Twentieth-Centurv problems were so interesting, and there seemed so little time in which to get ready for the Twentyfirst. Whereupon he began to talk with all his old-time enthusiasm about the future.
Machiavelli’s Art of War talked in a breezy fashion of his experience in Virginia, where he had gone in company with his inseparable friend Captain John Smith. Many were the times when they discussed the question whether the tactics that proved effective in the valley of the Po, or in the passes of the Apennines, would be successful against the Red Indians.
Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress told of a reader he had met in a backwoods cabin. He was an unformed lad named Abraham Lincoln, who had little acquaintance with books. “ I liked him none the less for that. I used to tell him of Mr. Greatheart and Mr. Honest and Mr. Valiant-for-the-Truth. One night I told him how Giant Grim and his lions blocked the way of the pilgrims and said that they could go no further along the King’s highway. Now Mr. Greatheart was a strong man, so he was not afraid of a lion. And he said, ‘These women and children are going on a pilgrimage, and this is the way they must go, and go it they shall, in spite of thee and the lions.’ I thought by the light in the boy’s eyes that some day if he should meet Giant Grim and his lions he might prove another Greatheart; and so, I am told, he did.”
“ Is n’t it remarkable,” said the Rubaiyát of Omar Khayyám, “ what little incidents will turn the whole current of our lives ? I was over seven hundred years old before I learned English, which I speak now better than I do my native Persian. I fell in quite by accident with a European named Fitz-something-orother, who introduced me to a new circle. so that I am now living a most exciting life. I find that my most enthusiastic readers live — not in Ispahan, but in Chicago. I have a reader who every evening is suspended from a strap and hurled through space in a machine invented by a malignant whirling dervish. As he sways back and forth, he murmurs to himself, —
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness,
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow !
The Old Librarian was convinced of the wisdom of those who urged the overambitious readers to make the intimate acquaintance of a few good books who would stay by them through life. For their own pleasure and profit they must make a choice of friends, and a few real friends are worth a host of ill-assorted acquaintances. He was not therefore disturbed by the good-natured chaffing which always accompanies the attempt at bringing together those who ought to know each other.
There are little jealousies among books, and it is impossible to please all of them. He was conscious of this when, in a corner of the hall, he saw a number of books chosen for their especial serviceableness being seated on a divan five feet long. Each as his name was called came forward with a look of modest merit, while betraying a momentary surprise as he glanced at his neighbor. This is only book-nature. John Woolmarr’s Journal, finding himself seated next to the Arabian Nights, was ill at ease.
“ Friend, I fear thou art one of the world’s people, being decked in gay apparel. I warn thee against vanities.”
He was reassured by seeing one of William Penn’s works in close converse with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.
Five feet, though ample to accommodate any one reader’s intimate book friends, is rather a small space, and however wise the choice, some excellent candidates are sure to be left out. This necessarily causes criticism.
When A Blot in the ’Scutcheon was invited, there was some hard feeling among the other works of Robert Browning. Saul maintained a dignified silence, and Sordello looked on with enigmaticcalm, but Pippa Passes whispered pettishly to The Ring and the Book. Some people, she said, were just as good as some other people.
Most of the invited books were quite sober, but Tam O’Shanter was evidently a little intoxicated by his success. “Sorry that you’ve been left out,” he said to Wordsworth’s Excursion, slapping him on the back. “ But we don’t think any less of you because you are not in our set. As a friend of mine said, ‘a-book’s a book for a’ that and a’ that.
“ When it’s so crowded,” answered the Excursion, “ you have the advantage over me in being rather slight.”
“Good-morrow! ” said Walton’s Compleat Angler to Emerson’s Essays. “ It’s pleasant to see new faces. We old fellows find such occasions a little sad. So many old friends drop out. I’m the only survivor of Dr. Johnson’s list of serviceable books. You know he made out a list for young Mr. Astle of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, brother of the learned and ingenious Thomas Astle, Esquire. It was the first time that my name had been mentioned in this way. No other honors have ever given me such pleasure. Perhaps you would like to know some of my companions at that time. I have the list in Dr. Johnson’s own handwriting. Among them are Puffendorfs Introduction to History, Carte’s History of England, Clarendon’s History. The Duly of Man, Watt’s Improvement of the Mind, Sherlock’s Sermons, Law’s Serious Call, Prideaux’s Connection, Shuckford’s Connection, Nature Displayed. I could hardly believe it when I found myself in that distinguished company, actually seated between Law’s Serious Call and Sandys’s Travels. This, I said, is fame.”
The Compleat Angler was almost overcome by his emotion.
“ Excuse me,” he said; “if some one will hold this seat for me for a few minutes I will go down on the floor and see if I can’t find some of the old crowd and arrange for a reunion. Ah! I see Clarendon’s History. He’s still extant, though he looks a little lonely. I see the SeriousCall, but where’s The Duty of Man? I wish I could come across Sandys’s Travels. And here, last and not least on Dr. Johnson’s list, are Some Commentaries on the Bible. I wash I could remember which they were. I wonder if I shall recognize them. There is such a strong family resemblance among commentaries. I am afraid I should not know Nature Dis‘played, though I have a vague recollection that he was a great swell in his day.”
At last they were all seated.
“ Rather a tight squeeze,” said Plutarch’s Lives.
“ Yes,” said Bacon’s Essays, “ reading maketh a full man.”
“ Where’s Shakespeare’s Works?” inquired Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.
“ You may search me,” said Bacon’s Essays.
They were so pleasant and cheery that the Old Librarian was impelled to go about and seek out his own cronies and bring them together in some little space. They were good friends whom he was always happy to meet. It was only when he got them together that he was aware what a miscellaneous collection they were. The only thing which they had in common was his liking for them, but this it proved was a sufficient bond.
It was quite late when a party of gay young volumes of fashion, who had been attending a coming-out party of one of their number, passed through the corridors. As they looked into a tiny room, they saw the Old Librarian seated in the middle of a circle of cheerful old volumes. They were singing, “ Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and the days of auld lang syne.”
“ I wonder,” said the youngest of the party, “ whether any of us will ever give so much pleasure.”