Sunday, November 11, 2012

`A Letter From the Shades'

With a gift card I received for my birthday I ordered The Letters of Charles Lamb, the three-volume set edited by Lamb’s biographer, E.V. Lucas, and published in 1935 by J.M. Dent & Sons and Methuen & Co. The books arrived on Friday from a dealer in England and are a pleasure to hold and read. I’ve borrowed the same set from the library a dozen times. I already own The Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb, also published in 1935, in the Modern Library edition, but the title is inaccurate, and it doesn’t include Mary Lamb’s letters. 

The binding is brown cloth over boards, and the top edge is gilt. On the endpaper of each volume is a small, gold-on-black label that reads: “The Times Book Club, 42 Wigmore Street, W.1.” On the endpaper of the third volume is a larger pink label that reads: “This Volume is from the PERMANENT LIBRARY of The Times Book Club and is NOT FOR SALE.” Someone with a pencil has crossed out the warning. Otherwise, I find no marking or annotations in any of the books. Best of all, tucked into the third volume is a warn and soiled paper bookmark for B.H. Blackwell Ltd., 50 & 51 Broad Street, Oxford. A pen-and-ink drawing titled “Broad Street” shows Blackwell’s between “Part of Trinity College” and “Site of the New Bodleian,” all helpfully specified with arrows. The other side of the bookmark promises:
you may want,
you may be,
Write to
The telephone number is 2217, followed by “Telegrams Books Oxford. Write for Free Catalogues.” Now seventy-seven years old, the books are well-worn, which suggests frequent but not careless use. Someone has read them, perhaps several people, generations of readers, making me their temporary steward. The volumes have not been stained, torn or needlessly exposed to sunlight. I’ve inherited a gift, something precious, the letters of a writer little read today. Lamb wrote to his friend John Rickman on July 16 [“Saturday morning”], 1803: 

“I enclose you a wonder, a letter from the shades. A dead body wants to return, and be inrolled inter vivos [between the living]. ’Tis a gentle ghost, and in this Galvanic age it may have a chance.”


Jonathan Chant said...

These books sound delightful. I really enjoyed this post, thank you.

Edward Bauer said...

"I've inherited a gift, something precious, the letters of a writer little read today." As Hoffer might say, a good sentence. For more than one reason, this has been a difficult week for me. Thanks for the gentle reminder of the more important things.

Fran Manushkin said...

A lovely gift and post--and a belated happy birthday.