Friday, April 20, 2018

`Shut Not Thy Heart, Nor Thy Library'

Next week we’re having the carpet pulled up in four rooms, a stairway and hall, and replacing it with hardwood flooring. All of my books must be boxed, labeled and stacked in other rooms. That’s more than two-thousand volumes, not counting the rest of the family’s books. Culling is called for. I’ve invited a third-grader down the block to go through our sons’ old books and take or borrow what he wants. I already have an investment in this kid. I pledged 25 dollars in a reading-for-charity book scam his school is running. Last year we gave him our complete set of “Captain Underpants” books. He owes me.

In a letter written April 9, 1816, Charles Lamb thanks Wordsworth for the books he has sent. One wonders what Wordsworth, not a notably comedic soul, made of Lamb’s relentlessly absurdist wit:

“I have not bound the poems yet; I wait till people have done borrowing them. I think I shall get a chain and chain them to my shelves, more Bodleiano, and people may come and read them at chain’s length. For of those who borrow, some read slow; some mean to read but don’t read; and some neither read nor meant to read, but borrow to leave you an opinion of their sagacity.”

Coleridge is visiting and is “beset with temptations.” Lamb tells Wordsworth: “Nature, who conducts every creature by instinct to its best end, has skilfully directed C. to take up his abode at a Chemist’s Laboratory in Norfolk Street.” C.’s laudanum dealer isn’t far away. In 1823, Lamb published his Elia essay “The Two Races of Men” – that is, lenders and borrowers. In the guise of Comberbatch, Coleridge is supreme among the latter:

“To one like Elia, whose treasures are rather cased in leather covers than closed in iron coffers, there is a class of alienators more formidable than that which I have touched upon: I mean our borrowers of books—those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes. There is Comberbatch, matchless in his depredations!”

Elia’s outrage is tempered, however, by another Coleridge/Comberbatch quirk: obsessive annotations and commentary written in borrowed volumes. Princeton has published five fat volumes of Coleridge marginalia. For Lamb, it’s like interest paid on a loan:

“Reader, if haply thou art blessed with a moderate collection, be shy of showing it; or if thy heart overfloweth to lend them, lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S. T. C. —he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury: enriched with annotations, tripling their value. I have had experience. Many are these precious MSS. of his—(in matter oftentimes, and almost in quantity not unfrequently, vying with the originals)—in no very clerkly hand—legible in my Daniel; in old Burton; in Sir Thomas Browne; and those abstruser cogitations of the Greville, now, alas! wandering in Pagan lands.—I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library, against S. T. C.”

No comments: