One of my favorite rooms in the enormous (by today's standards) house on the Ohio River where I grew up was the library. In memory I can still see the polished mahogany bookcases, with their hinged glass doors which could be raised and slid back over the tops of the books. And such books! There was a run of bound volumes of The Century; several bound volumes of St. Nicholas, one of them containing Charles F. Carryl's wonderful story, "Davy and the Goblin, or What Followed Reading 'Alice's [quoteright'/>Adventures in Wonderland'." (It contained the original version of "A Capital Ship for an Ocean Trip...," once a familiar - and much sung - selection in high school song books). There was an autographed copy of Ben Hur, by Lew Wallace; my foster father, General Healy, was his fellow officer during the Civil War. And the romantic novels of Winston Churchill, no relation to the Prime Minister. And that marvelous volume, "Wit and Wisdom of the Ages" - still funny, even today...
It naturally follows, then, that one of my favorite essays is one that appeared in Appleton's Journal (December 1881), titled On the Buying of Books. The author analyzed private libraries into types, and claimed that "a very short examination of a library is sufficient to enable one to describe the owner in general and unmistakable terms."
"Everyone, for instance, knows the great, solid mahogany bookcase, perhaps two or three such cases -- filled from top to bottom with inherited books which once belonged to a scholar of the family long deceased... All the books of the original collection which were not handsomely bound have long since been sent away and sold at a shilling a volume, sorted out. Those in leather backs were retained to stand in rows and act as furniture... But the soul of his collection is gone: the duodecimos which he read in daily, the tattered old volumes that helped his research and stimulated his thought, the actual food of his brain - these have vanished; what is left is the mere shell. This is the Furniture Library...
"The Furniture Library never gets a new book added to it. But even this poor dead and dispirited thing is better than the Flimsy Library, common among persons who have had no scholar in their family... They are the books that used to be presented to young ladies - ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago, according to the age of the house. The titles vary, but the taste remains the same: they are books on the domestic affections, the immortal works of Mesdames Ellis, Hemans, Sigourney, Sewell, and Yonge... and there are one or two "Handbooks." The Flimsy Library can go no further.
"A third class of library, and a very common one, may be called the Railway Library. It consists of two-shilling novels - nothing else - each one representing a railway journey... There is the Fashionable Library, in which every volume marks a passing phase in literary fashion in genre printing, or binding, from the Minerva school down to a ballade or villanelle; there is the Casual Library, in which the books seem to have been bought by the yard, just to fill up the shelves; the Technical Library, in which the seeker after literature finds the Dead Sea apples of scientific and professional works.. the Milk-and-Water Library, most of the books in which are at least thirty years of age, and were written by ladies who wore a velvet band about their brows, and were great on morals, and knew how to value their Christian privileges.., and finally, the Good Library, in which one may sit among the best, the wisest, the most delightful, the wittiest, the tenderest men who have ever lived and written for our solace and instruction - happy heaven be their lot! And oh, dear me! how rare it is to find such a library!"
In a later section of the article, the author deplores the practice of book publishers of coming out with badly assembled editions of the classics, often containing inferior or wholly inappropriate illustrations. Pernicious as this practice was, it seems to me insignificant when compared to the modern practice of one publisher (The Franklin Library -- a branch of the Franklin Mint) who, not content with the ridiculous practice of printing on the spine of its leather-bound volumes "First Edition," has now escalated to "Autographed First Edition." It must be clear to everyone that such volumes are, indeed, intended for a Furniture Library with which to impress the plebs, and which will vastly amuse, if not disgust, the cognoscenti. One can only marvel that any reputable author can be found willing to lend his name -- and signature - to so debased a practice. O, tempora, O mores!
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