“For a long time, as it seems to me, I have been talking of discoveries of books . . .”
That goes for me too, including the book from which I take that passage – the first volume of Arthur Machen’s autobiography, Far Off Things (1922). It’s the first book by Machen I have read, and probably the last. A reader recommended it because Machen was a lifelong book collector and ambitious reader. He is best known as a writer of horror fiction. If the author isn’t named Henry James or Isaac Bashevis Singer (or Shakespeare), I’m unlikely to read a ghost story or anything from the fantasy and supernatural genres.
I share some aspects of Machen’s childhood: “[A]s soon as I could read I had the run of a thoroughly ill-selected library; or, rather, of a library that had not been selected at all. My father’s collection, if that serious word may be applied to a hugger-mugger of books, had grown up anyhow and nohow, and in it the most revered stocks had mingled with the most frivolous.”
That sounds like the assortment of books kept by my mother: Anthony Adverse, Green Dolphin Street, The Grapes of Wrath – bestselling junk from the 30s and 40s. My father contributed a history of World War II published by the Department of Defense. Except for fugitive volumes from a Dickens set (Vol. 2 of Martin Chuzzlewit), that was it.
Machen doesn’t devote separate, freestanding chapters to books. Rather, his life and the books he reads are interleaved. Of his boyhood he writes:
“I have read curious and perplexed commentaries of that place in Sir Thomas Browne in which he declares his life up to the period of the Religio Medici to have been ‘a miracle of thirty years, which to relate were not a history, but a piece of poetry.’”
Machen refers to a sublime passage in Part II, Section 12 of Religio Medici: “Now for my life, it is a miracle of thirty yeares, which to relate, were not a History, but a peece of Poetry, and would sound to common eares like a fable; for the world, I count it not an Inne, but an Hospitall, and a place, not to live, but to die in. The world that I regard is my selfe, it is the Microcosme of mine owne frame . . .”
Machen continues: “Dr. Johnson, summing up the known events of Browne’s early life, finds therein nothing in the least miraculous; Southey says the miracle was the great writer’s preservation from atheism; Leslie Stephen considers that the strangeness ‘consists rather in Browne’s view of his own history than in any unusual phenomena. . . . Of my private opinion. I think there can be little doubt that when Sir Thomas Browne used the word ‘miraculous’ he was thinking not of miracles in the accepted sense as things done contrary to the generally observed laws of nature, but rather of his vision of the world, of his sense of a constant wonder latent in all things.”