Saturday, August 11, 2018

'A Handsome Contempt for Appearance'

Leigh Hunt in “Among My Books” (1823) writes of Charles Lamb’s library:

“It has also a handsome contempt for appearance. It looks like what it is, a selection made at precious intervals from the book-stalls; — now a Chaucer at nine and two-pence; now a Montaigne or a Sir Thomas Browne at two shillings; now a Jeremy Taylor; a Spinoza; an old English Dramatist, Prior, and Sir Philip Sidney; and the books are ‘neat as imported.’”

Lamb was a dedicated habitué of London’s book-stalls. My experience is confined to les bouquinistes along the Seine in Paris. The idea of books exposed to sunlight and rain makes me nervous. Lamb had no such misgivings. His celebration of London’s charms, in the letter he wrote to Thomas Manning on Nov. 28, 1800, includes the book-stalls:

“Streets, streets, streets, markets, theatres, churches, Covent Gardens, shops sparkling with pretty faces of industrious milliners, neat sempstresses, ladies cheapening, gentlemen behind counters lying, authors in the street with spectacles, George Dyers (you may know them by their gait), lamps lit at night, pastry-cooks' and silversmiths' shops, beautiful Quakers of Pentonville, noise of coaches, drowsy cry of mechanic watchman at night, with bucks reeling home drunk; if you happen to wake at midnight, cries of `Fire!’ and `Stop, thief!’ inns of court, with their learned air, and halls, and butteries, just like Cambridge colleges; old book-stalls, `Jeremy Taylors,’ `Burtons on Melancholy,’ and `Religio Medicis’ on every stall. These are thy pleasures, O London with-the-many-sins! O City abounding in--, for these may Keswick and her giant brood go hang!”

Two months later, in another London fête, Lamb writes to Wordsworth, who has invited him to the country:

“With you and your sister I could gang anywhere; but I am afraid whether I shall ever be able to afford so desperate a journey. Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes - London itself a pantomime and a masquerade - all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me.”

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