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William Hazlitt, On Reading Old Books

“I have more confidence in the dead than the living”, writes William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the eminent English essayist of the Romantic Era, in his essay “On Reading Old Books”. This may come as a bit of a surprise. A critic and acquaintance of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt was witnessing the poetic sea change of the Romantic period first-hand. He was immersed in a contemporary literature scene that must have been amongst the most thriving, exhilarating and inspiring in the history of English literature. And yet even Hazlitt found himself abandoning the literary rumpus of his day for the quiet meditation of an old book:

All these contradictions [of reading contemporary authors] and petty details interrupt the calm current of our reflections. If you want to know what any of the authors were who lived before our time, and are still objects of anxious inquiry, you have only to look into their works. But the dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.

For Hazlitt, old books are familiar books. New books, he says, are like “a strange dish”: “There is a want of confidence and security to second appetite.” An old book, on the other hand, is the trusted plain slice at the pizza corner, the burger and fries from your local pub, or a tasty home-baked quiche from a well-tried recipe: you know what you’re in for, and you know it’s going to be delicious. Of course, with old books, you get the additional advantage that, like an old and trusted friend, you can always learn something new. And you can take your time, too, without having to worry about rushing to the end; you can linger, or skip and skim, for you’ve been there already.

But Hazlitt rightly points out that the familiarity of old books extends to another level, namely the history shared by the book and the reader:

I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of he work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.

In this passage Hazlitt sums up what I believe to be one of the most essential parts of the reading experience and one of the most sorely neglected parts of reader-response theory — the individual’s own history of reading. This history includes not only our thoughts and ideas, but also the physical journey we undertook to obtain a book, or how we happened to come upon it. Hazlitt, for example, recounts the delight he experienced when he received Cooke’s pocket edition of Tom Jones, and sniffs at the cheap novels from the Ballantyne brothers or the Minerva Press. Cooke’s Tom Jones, he remembers, “broke the spell”, and “Cooke’s edition of the ‘British Novelists’ was to me a dance through life, a perpetual gala-day. The sixpenny numbers of this work regularly contrived to leave off just in the middle of a sentence, and in the nick of the story. With what eagerness I used to look forward to the next number, and open the prints!” Hazlitt ends on the romantic note:

To what nameless ideas did they give rise, — with what airy delights I filled up the outlines, as I hung in silence over the page! Let me still recall them, that they may breathe fresh life into me, and that I may live that birthday of thought and romantic pleasure over again! Talk of the ideal! This is the only true ideal — the heavenly tints of Fancy reflected in the bubbles that float upon the spring-tide of human life.

From Reading in Bed, collected by Steven Gilbar.


Reading at Work

Perhaps the best thing since sliced bread: Read at work! by the New Zealand Book Council.

Edgar Allan Poe's "A Dream"


Montaigne, The Commerce of Reading

Le malade n’est pas à plaindre qui a la guarison en sa manche. — Montaigne, Les Essais, “De Trois Commerces”

“The sick man is not to be pitied who has his cure in his sleeve.” Or his books on his bookshelves, for that matter. Thus muses Michel de Montaigne in his essay on the commerce of reading. I must admit that up to now, I have not been too impressed by Montaigne the writer; the occasional aphorism notwithstanding, his writing and thinking sometimes seems higgledy-piggledy to me, and sometimes outright banal. What he has to say about the company of books, however, was well worthwhile:

In the experience and practice of this sentence [i.e. the above quotation], which is a very true one, all the benefit I reap from books consists; and yet I make as little use of it almost as those who know it not; I enjoy it as a miser does his money, in knowing that I may enjoy it when I please; my mind is satisfied with this right of possession. I never travel without books, either in peace or war; and yet I sometimes pass over several days, and sometimes months, without looking at them; I will read by and by, say I to myself, and rest content in this consideration, that I have them by me, to divert myself with them when I am so disposed, and call to mind what an ease and assistance they are to my life. ‘Tis the best viaticum I have yet found out for this human journey, and I very much pity those men of understanding who are unprovided with it. I rather accept of any sort of diversion, how light soever, in the feeling that this can never fail me.

Michel de Montaigne

We might dismiss this attitude as that of the book-fool, but I tend to agree with Montaigne that the sheer possession of books is comforting, soothing almost. Books are a reassuring presence; they invite you to converse with them, but they do not force you to; they promise an ailment to boredom, a promise to provide entertainment, knowledge, all that good stuff, and even a pearl of wisdom every now and then.

Reading “comforts me in my age and solitude,” writes Montaigne, “it eases of a troublesome weight of idleness, and it delivers me at all hours from company that I dislike.” Montaigne is not an obsessive-compulsive reader, but a common reader, ardent no doubt, and engaging and clever, but also leisurely, a reader who is well aware of reading’s place in his life, as well as its limitations and dangers:

Books have many charming qualities to such as know how to choose them; but every good has its ill; ’tis a pleasure that is not pure and unmixed an more than others; it has its inconveniences, and great ones too; the mind, indeed, is exercised by it, but the body, the care of which I have not forgotten, remains in the meantime without action, grows heavy and melancholy. I know no excess more prejudicial to me, nor more to be avoided in my declining age.

Lines such as these lead me to think that the comfort of books lies not only in their presence, but also in the knowledge that their authors can speak to us through the ages, and that — regardless of the fact that one of us read from a printed page sitting on a wooden chair, the other from a computer screen sitting on a couch — we have something in common.

From Reading in Bed, collected by Steven Gilbar. Montaigne’s essays are available in English at Gutenberg, and here’s the original passage in French.


Reading in Bed

Reading in Bed is an anthology of essays by Steven Gilbar. I picked up a copy today at Housing Works on my first day as a volunteer; Gilbar’s collection features writers  such as Montaigne, Hazlitt, Emerson, Hesse, Nabokov, among many others, musing on the subject of reading. The cover illustration is a beautiful painting by Bascove titled “Reading in Bed”, courtesy of the Uptown Gallery:

Reading in Bed by Bascove

This composition is nigh-perfect in capturing my ultimate delights: reading, beauty, books on bookshelves, a luscious peach, an elegant green library lamp, a comfy bed, and a cat. Have you ever wondered why readers and cats go so well together? Perhaps because both are rather solitary creatures. More on Reading in Bed as I make my way through the essays one by one (preferably in the manner pictured above).


Book Dealings

According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, I am suited to be a bookstore owner. Incidentally, I have recently found myself thinking a lot about working in the book trade, or any profession revolving around books for that matter, and decided to volunteer at the Housing Works bookstore café.

Obviously, whoever wants to run a bookstore these days has to come to terms with the fact that buying a book is no longer as much about browsing shelves as browsing the internet. Online sales pose a great challenge to traditional bookstores, and one can hardly overestimate the extent to which the world wide web has changed the nature of book dealing. I must confess I purchased a book online only once and know next to nothing about online book trading. However, I assume that the basic principles of supply and demand and the dynamics of collecting still apply, and that the classical virtues of the book dealer — a keen eye for value, entrepreneurship, networking, a practical business sense coupled with a passion for books, etc. — continue to be essential, and so I listened with interest to an interview by Nigel Beale with Robert Rulan-Miller, an antiquarian book dealer who has been in the book dealing business for quite some time and has to offer some first-hand experience as well as some hints for the young collector.


Inauguration Book Report

Attending the inauguration was a fantastic experience, and me and my companion were among the fortunate few (or many, rather) who had no ticket and consequently didn’t have to put up with security, lines or purple tunnels of doom. The performance of John Williams “Air and a Simple Gifts” was beautiful, and witnessing the reaction of the crowd as various people walked onto the stage, and seeing and listening to them cheer and jubilate when Obama took the oath of office was wonderful, but the most moving moment for me was a passage from Obama’s inaugural address:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

The speech may have been short on substantial solutions, but that was not what was called for: what we needed was a vision, a vision of a world based on an enlightened, humanist world view, and a sense of urgency that we must unite, pull ourselves together and get to work, as well as a promise that if we find the determination, we will also find the strength and the means to pave the way for a better future. It was the quintessential American speech, hammered down with unmatched rhetorical splendor to a crowd who was not only thirsting for a president capable of inspiring people with his words, but willing to begin a new chapter. Let’s hope the spirit of that speech will carry on to inspire the American people, their president and the global community.

Of course, the inauguration also provided a nice excuse to visit Washington’s monuments and museums  and embark on a book-buying spree in the capital’s bookstore scene. Truth be told, after spending quite some time at bookstores, we managed to visit only one museum — the National Gallery of Art — which featured an astonishing range of paintings and sculptures of readers and books, as for instance Georges de la Tour’s repentant Magdalene:

For Washington book-browsing, we paid a visit to Second Story Books and Capitol Hill Books (highly recommended! On a Saturday, you get 10% off and free wine & cheese!) . At Capitol Hill, I got a manual of reading comprehension in exchange for replacing a light-bulb, and at Second Story I purchased a host of “books on books” , including a copy of This Book Collecting Game by A. Edward Norton and the ABC for Book-Collectors by John Carter.

I am still in two minds about book collecting. I have recently read Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World, which is an easy-to-read narrative introduction to book-collecting, quite informative on occasion,  though at times frustratingly meandering, irrelevant and callow (not to say downright moronic), and I have read several of Nicholas Basbanes’s books on bibliophilia; I even own a couple of rare books myself, and yet I have never pursued book-collecting in earnest. What I would need is a topic for a collection that is specific enough to make the hunt worthwhile and exciting, and at the same time interesting enough to make the collection in some sense “practical”. I abstain from buying books merely for aesthetic or sentimental purposes, even though I am very fond of a book’s physical attributes and immensely enjoy reading about the history of book-making. In order for me to buy a book, there has to be some kind of thematic thread, an intellecual stimulus, an incentive above and beyond mere beauty or scarcity, and until I find a collection topic that satisfies these criteria, I shall contend myself with the hunt of cheap and decent reading copies.


Raised Bands Are Sexy; or, A Primer on Bookbindings

Tomorrow I am going to see the Morgan Library’s exhibit Protecting the Word, which presents the collection’s most noteworthy bookbindings. To familiarize myself with the essential terminology of the bookbinding craft, I read up on the anatomy of the book and took a look at the British Library’s bookbinding brochure. Evidently, a binding’s main purpose is to protect the book’s text block, but since I do not intend to become a book binder any time soon, I skip the bit about sewing and glueing and dive straight into book decoration.

The Morgan exhibit has some magnificent medieval tomes on display, but frankly, medieval decorative binding deserves its own chapter. Suffice it to say that the medieval book was a treasure, and bound accordingly, as in this fine specimen from the Morgan, the Lindau Gospels from St. Gall in Switzerland from the late ninth century:

Lindau Gospels

But bookbinding as a craft and art in its own right begins much later, namely in the 15th century,  after the invention of the printing press. One of the “fathers” of modern decorative bookbinding was a Frenchman by the name of Jean Grolier. Grolier was not a bookbinder himself, but a book collector famous for commissioning the bindings that now carry his name. Grolier’s love for books as well as for sharing them with others have inspired book artists, collectors and readers for centuries. A prominent feature of Grolier bindings is the Latin inscription Io. Grolierii et Amicorvm — (property) of Jean Grolier and his friends. Grolier’s willingness to share his book with his friends is the stuff of legend, and the famous New York Grolier Club donned his name in honour of his friendships (he befriended, among others, book luminaries such as Erasmus and Aldus Manutius). Below is an example of a Grolier binding from the British library. You can see the inscription and the geometrical and arabesque patterns that are typical of a Grolier design.

Grolier Binding

Whoever wants to become well-versed in the art of the binding must be able to recognise names such as Padeloup, Cobden-Sanderson, or Zaehnsdorf — the names of master bookbinders, exquisite craftsmen and brilliant innovators who left an indelible stamp on their craft. Books fortunate enough to be clad in one of their bindings  are keenly sought treasures these days.

The art of bookbinding knows a multitude of decorative styles and methods — mosaic, pointillé, romantic, neo classical, art nouveau, art deco — and a host of technical terms. The technique of gauffed edges, for instance, refers to imprinting indented patterns on the fore- and sige-edges of a book. An onlay produces a mosaic effect in leather by replacing strips of the original leather binding with leather of a different colour. And dentelle decorations consist “of a combination of elliptical scrolls of slightly shaded leafy character joined to clusters and horders of great richness”. Magnificent!

dentelle decoration

And that concludes my primer to bookbinding. More when I return from the Morgan. For readers interested to learn more on the subject, here a paraphernalia of online sources:

– Herb Weitz’s brief history of decorative bookbinding

– Roberts and Etherington’s dictionary of bookbinding terms (excellent)

Virtual Bookbinding

– Comprehensive link list to book arts provided by the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild


Remember, Remember

Continuing my series of gloomy and dystopian posts, today’s entry features Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Fahrenheit was an arresting read for me, not only because of the book theme, or Bradbury’s engaging prose, or the touching characterization of the protagonist, the “fireman” (i.e. book burner) Guy Montag, but also because I was expecting something quite different from a novel that up to now I had categorised as the third installment of the classic dystopian trilogy beginning with Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Having recently watched a BBC adaptation of Huxley’s Brave New World, crammed with soma-induced pyjama wearing alphas to gammas, assembly lines for breeding, brainwashing jingles, hypno-cinemas, and all the other various gadgets, I was expecting Bradbury to do exactly the same, namely to spend a good deal of time elaborating on his dystopian society and create a world full of symbol-laden contraptions and quirky  social routines burdened with moral dilemmas. Fahrenheit does that, too, but merely in passing, and uses it not as an end in itself, but as a backdrop for portraying the growing conflict facing the book’s main character, Guy Montag.

The central premise of Fahrenheit, as most of you will know, is that a future society has institutionalized the burning of books (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns). Books have become forbidden objects, and although some renegade readers still hide them in their attics, living in constant fear of the fire department showing up at their doorstep, most citizens regard printed matter with fear, suspicion or unsavory ridicule.  A handful of readers have gone into hiding in the forests at the outskirts of the city, and have taken it upon themselves to save the legacy of the great books by memorizing them before they are being obliterated — a “living memory” in every sense of the word:

We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau’s Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine. Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell. […] And when the war’s over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, and the people will be called in, one by one, to recall what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damned thing over again.

Bradbury’s decision to centre his dystopia around books must have come naturally to him. Born into a publisher family, he was also a bibliophile. I remember watching an Bradbury interview where he describes his first encounter with books, instantly becoming obsessed with their smell, and when you read Fahrenheit you will soon realise that his writing is very olfactory indeed. Of course it is not books as things that matter to the story, but their capacity to contain thoughts and ideas: books are the memory of humankind, and Bradbury captures the sense of memory loss of a bookless society poignantly in a childhood episode of the novel’s protagonist. While Montag is sitting in the subway, a stolen Bible clasped to his body, trying desperately to remember a line from the sermon of the mount, failing as the train speakers shout their ads at the passengers, he remembers the following scene:

Once as a child he had sat upon a yellow dune by the sea in the middle of the blue and hot summer day, trying to fill a sieve with sand, because some cruel cousin had said, “Fill this sieve and you’ll get a dime!” And the faster he poured, the faster it sifted through with a hot whispering. His hands were tired, the sand was boiling, the sieve was empty. Seated there in the midst of July, without a sound, he felt the tears move down his cheeks.

Bradbury’s dystopian world is filled with noise — soap operas, the roaring fighter jet, colour walls, dentistry commercials; and the noise makes it impossible for Montag to hang on even to a single line from what he is reading. In Bradbury’s future, the inability to hold on to what you have read, and the thoughts and ideas you encounter  and perchance the new ideas you create, has eradicated people’s sense of being individuals, and at the same time made it impossible for them to engage meaningfully with the history of human thought, or even with their present surroundings and other human beings.

Fahrenheit was written in 1953.  Ten years after publication, Bradbury described a scene he had just witnessed on the street, of a woman walking next to her husband:

The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera-cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down kerbs by a husband who might just as well have not been there. This was not fiction.

I can only surmise what Bradbury has been thinking and feeling for the last couple of decades, but I imagine it must be a rather daunting and unsettling experience as a dystopian writer to witness your vision of the future manifesting itself in the present and realising you might have been all too right in your predictions. We might still keep a lot books around (more than ever, in fact) and most of us, hopefully, consider the burning of books a sacrilege; but as far as the memory of books is concerned, I for one am haunted by the fear of losing the ability to hold on to what I have read, and on a larger social scale this might be as dangerous as losing the books themselves.


I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust

So in case you haven’t heard, the world’s economy is not doing so well, and the closer we march towards an economic ice age, the frostier the outlook on “book&reading jobs” as well: disappearing jobs in American academia, library closures in Britain, universities going bankrupt in Germany, not to mention the closing of bookstores all over the place. Given these dire prospects, it is very uplifting and encouraging to hear some good job news, too.

Anxious about my own uncertain future, I find my reading invigorated by a sense of urgency and verisimilitude. I have read Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday a couple of years ago and it struck a chord, but as I am rereading it now, passages such as the following resonate much more deeply:

How Lilliputian were all these cares, how wind-still the time! It had better luck, the generation of my parents and my grandparents, it lived quietly, straight and clearly from one of its life to the other. But even so, I do not know if I envy them. How they remained blissfully unaware of the bitter realities, of the tricks and forces of fate, how they lived apart from all those crises and problems that crush the heart but at the same time marvelously uplift it! How little they kney, as they muddled through in security and comfort and possessions, that life can also be tension and profusion, a continuous state of being surprised, and being lifted up from all sides; little did they think in their touching liberalism and optimism that each succeeding day that dawns outside our window can smash our life. Not even in their darkest nights was it possible for them to dream how dangerous man can be, or how much power he has to withstand dangers and overcome trials. We who have been hounded through all the rapids of life, we who have been torn loose from all roots that held us, we, always beginning anew when we have been driven to the end, we, victims and yet willing servants of unknown, mystic forces, we, for whom comfort has become a saga and security a childhood dream, we have felt the tension from pole to pole and the eternal dread of the eternal new in every fiber of our being. Every hour of our years was bound up with the world’s destiny. Suffering and joyful we have lived time and history far beyond our own little existence, while they, the older generation, were confined with themselves. Therefore each one of us, even the smallest of our generation, today knows a thousand times more about reality than the wisest of our ancestors. But nothing was given to us: we paid the price, fully and validly, for everything.

Of course, our current situation in the West does not (yet) compare to the devastation that took place in the first half of the 20th century, and I hope we have learnt enough from history to avoid another such cataclysm. Fingers crossed. But just in case we fuck up once more, I’ll give The Waste Land another shot. Ti theleis?


We Read No More That Day

According to a new survey, nearly half of all men and a third of all women lie about what they are reading to impress potential partners, and some even let themselves be “caught” reading on purpose while waiting for their date. I feel compelled to usher a warning to all book lovers (or pretenders) intending to fall in love over the act of reading: chances are that you end up swirling in the first circle of hell for eternity — with compliments from Paolo and Francesca.

One day we read for pastime how in thrall
Lord Lancelot lay to love, who loved the Queen;
We were alone — we thought no harm at all.
As we read on, our eyes met now and then,
And to our cheeks the changing colour started,
But just one moment overcame us — when
We read of smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,
Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,
He that may never more from me be parted
Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say
The book was Galleot, Galleot the complying
Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day.