In a letter written Dec. 22, 1920, Max Beerbohm tells his longtime friend Reggie Turner he has mailed him two recently published books as Christmas presents – Herbert Beerbohm Tree [Max’s half-brother]: Some memories of him and his art collected by Max Beerbohm and And Even Now, Max’s best essay collection. Beerbohm tells Turner they are:
“Bedside books. Dippable-into.”
There’s charming modesty at work here, but we know what he means. Dedicated readers keep handy “dippable-into” books, if not at bedside, at least on nearby shelves. To my mind, if not Beerbohm’s, a book must already have been read straight through, recently or long ago, to be “dippable-into,” with the exception of dictionaries and other reference works. “Dippable-into” suggests the volume has already proven its worth as a source of pleasure or instruction.
Each reader, naturally, assembles his own “dippable-into” library, adding and discarding titles across a lifetime. My predicable catalog includes Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets, Montaigne and Lamb, Thoreau’s journal, Religio Medici, Shakespeare, poems by Cunningham and Swift. A recent addition is Gilson’s Being and Some Philosophers. All are bookish equivalents of “comfort food,” toothsome sustenance.
Among their company is Beerbohm’s own And Even Now. He’s not to every reader’s taste and not all of him is to mine. He can be dandyish and mannered but also thoughtful, witty, gentle, avuncular, even wise, as in this passage from the final essay in And Even Now, “Laughter”:
“Come to me in some grievous difficulty: I will talk to you like a father, even like a lawyer. I’ll be hanged if I haven’t a certain mellow wisdom. But if you are by way of weaving theories on some one who will luminously confirm or powerfully rend them, I must, with a hang-dog air, warn you that I am not your man. I suffer from a strong suspicion that things in general cannot be accounted for through any formula or set of formulae, and that any one philosophy, howsoever new, is no better than any other. This is in itself a sort of philosophy, and I suspect it accordingly; but it has for me the merit of being the only one that I can make head or tail of.”