Reading The Life of Charles Lamb by E.V. Lucas, first published in two volumes in 1905, rekindles my love for the essayist, for his life and work, and for the example he sets as man and writer. Those of us not indiscriminately social, not small talkers or flannel-mouths, will envy Lamb’s easy grace at conversation and his gift for befriending such world-class wits and talkers as Coleridge and Hazlitt. Lamb and his circle were not afraid to talk about books with enthusiasm. They read voraciously and with discrimination, and possessed vast memories. Books were food and drink, consumed for sustenance and pleasure not show. Lucas quotes Crabb Robinson’s diary entry for Jan. 10, 1824:
“I looked over Lamb’s library in part. He has the finest collection of shabby books I ever saw; such a number of first-rate works of genius, but filthy copies, which a delicate man would really hesitate touching, is I think nowhere to be found. I borrowed several books.”
The last sentence, amusingly understated, cinches my point. Lamb & Co. were readers not collectors or otherwise dilettantes. Lamb confirms as much in one of his Essays of Elia, “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading”:
“Thomson’s Seasons, again, looks best (I maintain it) a little torn, and dog’s-eared. How beautiful to a genuine lover of reading are the sullied leaves, and worn out appearance, nay, the very odour (beyond Russia), if we would not forget kind feelings in fastidiousness, of an old `Circulating Library' Tom Jones, or Vicar of Wakefield! How they speak of the thousand thumbs, that have turned over their pages with delight!—of the lone sempstress, whom they may have cheered (milliner, or harder-working mantua-maker) after her long day’s needle-toil, running far into midnight, when she has snatched an hour, ill spared from sleep, to steep her cares, as in some Lethean cup, in spelling out their enchanting contents! Who would have them a whit less soiled? What better condition could we desire to see them in?”
Typical of Lamb to laud not an aristocrat but a “lone sempstress” for her late-night devotion to reading. More than three years ago I reported an anecdote about Lamb recounted by Hazlitt in “Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen.” While playing a parlor game, Lamb says of all English authors he would most like to meet Fulke Greville and Sir Thomas Browne – superb, provocative choices. Who can imagine having such a conversation today? Seldom is book talk devoted to books. Instead it turns to money and reputation – in short, vanity – and quickly devolves into self-centered argument. Hazlitt, a chronic arguer, writes in “On the Conversation of Authors”:
“The fault of literary conversation in general is its too great tenaciousness. It fastens upon a subject, and will not let it go. It resembles a battle rather than a skirmish, and makes a toil of a pleasure.”
Hazlitt might be writing about the bookish corner of the blogosphere.