Saturday, October 01, 2011

`How They Speak of the Thousand Thumbs'

One of the joys of a generously stocked university library is having access to old books, often obscure, out-of-print and exorbitantly expensive to purchase. Age burnishes books, even tawdry titles, with a patina of respectability, as it does more rarely to human beings. Charles Lamb understood how “beautiful to a genuine lover of reading are the sullied leaves, and worn out appearance, nay, the very odour” of antique volumes. The scent of must and dust is intoxicating.

I heard a radio show about Museum of Antiquity, itself a sort of bookish museum piece, extravagantly subtitled (and sub-subtitled) A Description of Ancient Life: The Employments, Amusements, Customs and Habits, the Cities, Palaces, Monuments and Tombs, the Literature and Fine Arts of 3,000 Years Ago. The authors are L.W. Yaggy, M.S., and T.L. Haines, A.M., who published Museum of Antiquity in 1883 with Western Publishing House of Chicago.

My library has a copy. It’s a chunky cinder-block of a book, weighing almost six pounds, with 944 pages, leather binding and marbled end papers. The volume is larded with hundreds of steel engravings, the sort of images Max Ernst lifted for his collages in La Femme 100 TĂȘtes. The text is workmanlike, much of it borrowed straight (“drawn abundantly,” the authors say in their preface) from previously published encyclopedias and histories. One doesn’t consult such books for research purposes unless the research is into the romance of old books, volumes dedicated to antiquity that are themselves reliquaries. The spidery inscription at the front of the volume is faded but legible:

“Presented to Minna Goulds by her father and mother. July 30, 1883.”

Each reader contributes a phantom hypertext to each book he reads, a speculative glow of annotation. I’m reading Minna as I’m reading Museum. Today’s pulpy paperbacks, thrillers and romances, those that endure, will someday be handled reverently, if people are still reading. Lamb writes:

“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?”

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