Saturday, January 07, 2012

`A Curious Remedy for Present Cares'

“I cannot profess to be a genuine collector of books, I know nothing of positive bibliography; small books, I call octavos, and large ones quartos. Folios I seldom carry home, out of a growing sympathy with my weary body. But so far as my preferences in size and weight are satisfied, I am a willing rescuer of books.”

This is Edmund Blunden (1896-1974) in his essay “Bringing Them Home” (The Mind’s Eye, 1934), writing in a tone of disingenuously attractive modesty. In his biography of the poet, Barry Webb devotes a chapter to “Book Collecting,” and says Blunden “was never without the company of books.” Webb reports he “sought solace” in Charles Lamb and Paul Verlaine in the trenches during the Great War. He was a bibliophile and reader, identities that don’t always overlap, never a book-snob. Nor was he greedy. He routinely shipped review copies to a Japanese friend and culled unwanted volumes from his collection. Book rescue was a critically altruistic impulse in Blunden, who was instrumental in restoring or maintaining the critical reputations of William Collins, Lamb, John Clare and others. Webb writes:

“He collected for two reasons: to build up a `working’ library and to rescue volumes he felt others would ignore. He believed that an adequate library of English literature could be established without paying more than sixpence a volume in 1920 – a price he allowed to increase to two shillings and sixpence in 1930 and ten shillings in 1950 – and by this means he created a library of 10,000 volumes by 1965.”

I’ve known collectors who never part with books, regardless of their literary value. Theirs is a warehouse aesthetic. The volume of their volumes is a source of pride, and any dreck will do if it fills out the shelves. Hoarders are not collectors. The largest personal library I’ve ever seen was also the most comprehensive, tastefully selected and well-used. It was, in Blunden’s sense, a “working library,” not a vanity project to impress visitors. From the owner I borrowed and came to value books by Tacitus, Thomas Traherne, Madison Jones, Sergey Aksakov, Nikolai Leskov, Thomas Kinsella, Konstantin Paustovsky, Sherwood Anderson, V.S. Pritchett and Edward Dahlberg.

Webb dutifully logs the contents of Blunden’s “working library” – 39 Chaucer volumes, 200 Shakespeare, 50 Milton, 40 Dryden, 70 Pope, 75 Swift, 90 Johnson, 150 Coleridge, and so on. Also, the “`rescued’ minor poets,” hardly known by modern readers – eight editions of Charles Churchill, seventeen of Samuel Rogers, twenty-eight of Christopher Smart, twenty-five of William Collins, ten of Francis Quarles, eighteen of William Barnes, twenty of Edward Young.

Blunden also collected books for their bindings and typography – an admiration I share, though I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a volume solely for its design. He acquired Lamb’s Milton and Byron’s copy of The Rolliad, copiously annotated most of his books (in pencil), and left inscriptions in books owned by other people, often without telling them. His existence, in short, was thoroughly bookish – not a bad thing in a man so gentle and good-natured. His friend, the formidably well-read Rupert Hart Davis, called Blunden “the most accomplished book-hunter I have ever known.” To his credit, Blunden was not a packrat or dilettante, but read and reread what he collected. In “Bringing Them Home” he writes:

“The resourcefulness of those who have made books through the centuries often makes me forget the serious business of reading, and a book comes home simply because it took my eye in some way. Later on, I endeavour to square accounts by examining the author’s share, and in this way I have made the acquaintance of far too many hands.”

Blunden’s personal library remains intact at Ohio University. This is his poem “In a Library” (Choice or Chance, 1934):

“A curious remedy for present cares,
And yet as near a good one as I know;
It is to scan the cares of long ago,
Which these brown bindings lodge.
In black print glares
The Elizabethan preacher, heaping shame
On that ubiquitous gay hell, the stage;
And here’s another full of scriptural rage
Against high Rome. Fie, parson, be more tame.
This critic gnashes his laborious teeth
At that, whose subtlety seems no such matter;
This merchant bodes our economic death,
The envoy hastens with his hard-won chatter;
Age hacks at youth, youth paints the old town red—
And in the margin Doomsday rears his head.”

1 comment:

Chuck Kelly said...

I lived in England for 3 years during the late '90s. I acquired many books, paying visits to Hay-on-Wye & Charing Cross Road in London. When I packed up to return to the US, I couldn't take everything, so one of my criteria for keeping a book was it's price. Anybook marked with a pre-decimal price (pound-shilling-pence) came home with me. Just thought I'd mention another angle on retaining books in a personal library.