September 20, 2011

Gladstone's books

When did you last buy a book? How often do you buy books? How often do you go to libraries- I spent the weekend in the British library thumbing through newly published works about the seventeenth century- when did you last go? How often do you read a book- on the train to work, at dinner, in a captured moment in a lift, for work? I'm not turning into Italo Calvino here but if any of the answers to those questions are yes or I frequently read or buy books, then you fall into a category that Gladstone defines in his essay on books. The nineteenth century statesman stated in an essay that 'I shall assume that the book buyer is a book lover, that his love is a tenacious not a transitory love and that for him the question is how to keep his books'. Gladstone's essay is about how to build a library- what sort of room should it be, how should the shelves be positioned. Its not a thought we all have all the time- but as someone who loves books it might be one you have had. I've definitely wondered about it- all my life- the dream library has filled my imagination. It would be cosy, have plenty of alcoves and niches, an endless supply of tea which would never spill and include plenty of writing materials and be indexed (by magic).

What's interesting about Gladstone's essay isn't his invocation of an ideal library. He talks of a library of 10,000 volumes sorted under the major headings- philosophy, history et al. That might be possible at Hawarden but in crowded central London, Manhatten or Moscow its probably out of the ken of most ordinary mortals. No its not the explicit subject that I loved about Gladstone's essay: its the fact that he loved books and what he writes about he writes with a sense of why he loves books. Firstly take this passage,


books are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of comunion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man. They are in a certain sense at enmity with the world. Their work is, at least, in the two higher components of our threefold life. In a room well equipped with them, no one has felt or can feel solitary. Second to none as friends to the individual, they are first and formost among the compages, the bonds and rivets of the race onward form that time when they were first written on the tablets of Babylonia and Assyria, the rocks of Asia Minor and the monuments of Egypt, down to the diamond editions of Mr Pickering and Mr Froude.
There is a lot of hyperbole in this first passage. I'll quite freely admit I have felt alone in a room filled with books. I'll also quite freely admit that there are times when I'd prefer they offered some consolation bar a wall of letters. But in the moments when I truly love books, I think Gladstone is right. My fairly squat Everyman edition of Gibbon for example carries with it real affection. It is the writers of the books, the spirits which live in the pages which I care about and am linked to as I read.

Gladstone gets to this when he talks about the differing characters of books. Some he says can never be stored in the back of a shelf (Gibbon for example) but as he comments 'neither all men nor all books are equally sociable. For my part I find but little sociability in a huge wall of Hansards or (though a great improvement) in the Gentleman's magazine, in the Annual Registers, in the Edinburgh and Quarterly Review or in the vast range of volumes which present pamphlets innumerable'. The point he is making is that we relate to books in different ways- the sign of a true lover of books in a way is the sense that she relates to the books she owns and she reads in a different way. So Hansards or old copies of the Gentleman's Magazine (a serious journal) deserve different treatment from old friends like Austen and Bronte- one is written for ephemera, the other for eternity. You don't have to agree with Gladstone about his library or even be able to maintain it to understand that central point. And ultimately having understood that, it really doesn't matter how or what you read- just that you feel what Gladstone self evidently felt. That the printed page is a door from your mind into other minds, from your world into other worlds.

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