On Browsing

MODERN educationists say that browsing is a valuable part of a general education, and they recommend their students to wander at will in private or public libraries, reading here and there as fancy chooses.

Some educationists do not condemn skipping; very wisely, they say that to get the essential facts from a book ‘skillful skipping ’ is necessary. I think — but I am not sure, so please do not write to correct me — I think it was Dr. Jowett who advised Mrs. Asquith — Miss Tennant she was then — to skip. ' And oh, the sunsets I have skipped since then,’ she remarks. In many books one really ought to ‘cut the cackle, an’ come to the ’osses.’ I dare not give instances, for they are to be found in the books of note that our ancestors adored in the beginning of last century. You can easily fill in the gaps for yourselves, and nobody’s feelings will be hurt.

There are two ways of browsing. The first has nothing to do with conscience; one just sits down with a pile of books, or one long book, — a dictionary will do, — and turns the pages, dipping in here and there, with time, and a background of more time. It is not browsing to turn the pages of a magazine, looking at a picture here, reading a story or a bit of an article there; one cannot browse over a newspaper; there must be a book, a big book, — the more books the better, in fact, — and there must be no search at the back of the mind, no fact to find out, nothing to verify, no quotation to run to earth. That kind of browsing is really a rest-cure-in-reading. I advise a wet afternoon, a Saturday by preference; a fire, of course; a pipe or a cigarette, and a cup of tea, according to the whim of the browser.

Once my professor and I were looking for a house in London, and we were given an ‘Order to View’ card for a house where the occupants were in the very pangs of moving. At least so we thought; but were they? Movers to right of them, movers to left of them, moving vans in front of them, dashed about and thundered. No trace of the family — until we opened the door of a room that was described by the agents as ‘useful as nursery, schoolroom, boudoir, playroom, smoking room or dressmaking room.’ It had not been touched by the movers; there we found the whole family, sitting, mostly on the floor, browsing. The floor was strewn with letters, dance programmes, concert and theatre programmes, photographs, newspaper cuttings yellow with age, just thrown into the heap. They were so absorbed in their browsing that nobody looked up when we entered. Father, mother, grown-ups and children, there they were, perfectly happy, and indifferent to the racket outside; one glance at all their blue eyes — for they did raise them when a servant came in to ask some imperative question — showed us that they were all Irish, and that every eye had ‘bin putt in wi’ a durty finger.’ Somebody answered the question, and back again to their browsing they all went. I feel sure that everything, including the yellow newspaper cuttings, was swept into a clothesbasket and taken along with them, all ready to be browsed over at the next upheaval.

But the perfect browser must have one possession. To begin with, of course, he must have a library; call it what you will, — library, study, bookroom, cubbyhole, smoking room, den, Daddy’s room, gunroom, ‘my own bit of the house,’ anything you like, — only it must be his, and it must be lined with books. And by lined I mean that there must be shelves, and more shelves, right up to the ceiling. And the man must be a bookman, one who knows where his books are, one who can find his quotation in a minute, and he must be always adding to his library. In his secret heart, he is not content. There is one thing he wants — a ladder; a library ladder. His books have finally become Browmingesque; the reach must have exceeded his grasp — else what’s a ladder for?

First, he rearranges his books, just where and as they ought to be, and he knows where every one of them is. He sets his ladder very neatly in its corner, running it there on its dear little noiseless wheels; and for a day it stays there, just to be looked at. Then, he wants to reread a book; top shelf, west end, left-hand corner, third from the middle.

With a trace of ceremony, but no pomp, — your bookman is never pompous, — he runs his ladder along, and mounts it. His hand is just falling on the book he wants when he sees another; he has always wanted to glance at that book. Dear reader, may we tell the truth? It is nine-thirty on a Sunday morning; already his family know he has ‘ the beginning of a cold ’; when the luncheon bell rings and he heeds it not, and his family storm his library, there he is, stiff and coldish, balancing himself on the ladder, one hand on a shelf, the other holding a book — books all round him, amazingly, recklessly displaced, a pile precariously on the top of the ladder. Another real browser has been born.

Watch a bookman’s attitude as he carelessly brings his new ladder into action; see the look of bleak envy as a ladderless bookman takes note. Some modesty is expected from the owner of a Rolls-Royce, but never expect any from a bookman with a ladder. After books comes the passionate desire for a ladder. I once knew a man who built his house round a library ladder. He was, and is, a bachelor.