It is curious to reflect that the library, in our customary sense, is quite a modern institution. Three hundred years ago there were no public libraries in Europe. The Ambrosian, at Milan, dates from 1608; the Bodleian, at Oxford, from 1612. To these Angelo Rocca added his in Rome, in 1620. But private collections of books always existed, and these were the haunts of learning, the little glimmering hearths over which knowledge spread her cold fingers, in the darkest ages of the world. To-day, although national and private munificence has increased the number of public libraries so widely that almost every reader is within reach of books, the private library still flourishes. There are men all through the civilised world to whom a book is a jewel—an individual possession of great price. I have been asked to gossip about my books, for I also am a bibliophile. But when I think of the great collections of fine books, of the libraries of the magnificent, I do not know whether I dare admit any stranger to glance at mine. The Mayor of Queenborough feels as though he were a very important personage till Royalty drives through his borough without noticing his scarf and his cocked hat; and then, for the first time, he observes how small the Queenborough town-hall is. But if one is to gossip about books, it is, perhaps, as well that one should have some limits. I will leave the masters of bibliography to sing of greater matters, and will launch upon no more daring voyage than one autour de ma pauvre bibliothèque.
I have heard that the late Mr. Edward Solly, a very pious and worshipful lover of books, under several examples of whose book-plate I have lately reverently placed my own, was so anxious to fly all outward noise that he built himself a library in his garden. I have been told that the books stood there in perfect order, with the rose-spray flapping at the window, and great Japanese vases exhaling such odours as most annoy an insect-nostril. The very bees would come to the window, and sniff, and boom indignantly away again. The silence there was perfect. It must have been in such a secluded library that Christian Mentzelius was at work when he heard the male book-worm flap his wings, and crow like a cock in calling to his mate. I feel sure that even Mentzelius, a very courageous writer, would hardly pretend that he could hear such a "shadow of all sound" elsewhere. That is the library I should like to have. In my sleep, "where dreams are multitude," I sometimes fancy that one day I shall have a library in a garden. The phrase seems to contain the whole felicity of man—"a library in a garden!" It sounds like having a castle in Spain, or a sheep-walk in Arcadia, and I suppose that merely to wish for it is to be what indignant journalists call "a faddling hedonist."
In the meanwhile, my books are scattered about in cases in different parts of a double sitting-room, where the cats carouse on one side, and the hurdy-gurdy man girds up his loins on the other. A friend of Boethius had a library lined with slabs of ivory and pale green marble. I like to think of that when I am jealous of Mr. Frederick Locker-Lampson, as the peasant thinks of the White Czar when his master's banqueting hall dazzles him. If I cannot have cabinets of ebony and cedar, I may just as well have plain deal, with common glass doors to keep the dust out. I detest your Persian apparatus.
It is a curious reflection, that the ordinary private person who collects objects of a modest luxury, has nothing about him so old as his books. If a wave of the rod made everything around him disappear that did not exist a century ago, he would suddenly find himself with one or two sticks of furniture, perhaps, but otherwise alone with his books. Let the work of another century pass, and certainly nothing but these little brown volumes would be left, so many caskets full of passion and tenderness, disappointed ambition, fruitless hope, self-torturing envy, conceit aware, in maddening lucid moments, of its own folly. I think if Mentzelius had been worth his salt, those ears of his, which heard the book-worm crow, might have caught the echo of a sigh from beneath many a pathetic vellum cover. There is something awful to me, of nights, and when I am alone, in thinking of all the souls imprisoned in the ancient books around me. Not one, I suppose, but was ushered into the world with pride and glee, with a flushed cheek and heightened pulse; not one enjoyed a career that in all points justified those ample hopes and flattering promises.
The outward and visible mark of the citizenship of the book-lover is his book-plate. There are many good bibliophiles who abide in the trenches, and never proclaim their loyalty by a book-plate. They are with us, but not of us; they lack the courage of their opinions; they collect with timidity or carelessness; they have no need for the morrow. Such a man is liable to great temptations. He is brought face to face with that enemy of his species, the borrower, and dares not speak with him in the gate. If he had a book-plate he would say, "Oh! certainly I will lend you this volume, if it has not my book-plate in it; of course, one makes a rule never to lend a book that has." He would say this, and feign to look inside the volume, knowing right well that this safeguard against the borrower is there already. To have a book-plate gives a collector great serenity and self-confidence. We have laboured in a far more conscientious spirit since we had ours than we did before. A learned poet, Lord De Tabley, wrote a fascinating volume on book-plates, some years ago, with copious illustrations. There is not, however, one specimen in his book which I would exchange for mine, the work and the gift of one of the most imaginative of American artists, the late Edwin A. Abbey. [See Frontispiece] It represents a very fine gentleman of about 1610, walking in broad sunlight in a garden, reading a little book of verses. The name is coiled around him, with the motto, Gravis cantantibus umbra. I will not presume to translate this tag of an eclogue, and I only venture to mention such an uninteresting matter, that my indulgent readers may have a more vivid notion of what I call my library. Mr. Abbey's fine art is there, always before me, to keep my ideal high.
To possess few books, and those not too rich and rare for daily use, has this advantage, that the possessor can make himself master of them all, can recollect their peculiarities, and often remind himself of their contents. The man that has two or three thousand books can be familiar with them all; he that has thirty thousand can hardly have a speaking acquaintance with more than a few. The more conscientious he is, the more he becomes like Lucian's amateur, who was so much occupied in rubbing the bindings of his books with sandal-wood and saffron, that he had no time left to study the contents. After all, with every due respect paid to "states" and editions and bindings and tall copies, the inside of the volume is really the essential part of it.
The excuses for collecting, however, are more than satire is ready to admit. The first edition represents the author's first thought; in it we read his words as he sent them out to the world in his first heat, with the type he chose, and with such peculiarities of form as he selected to do most justice to his creation. We often discover little individual points in a first edition, which never occur again. And if it be conceded that there is an advantage in reading a book in the form which the author originally designed for it, then all the other refinements of the collector become so many acts of respect paid to this first virgin apparition, touching and suitable homage of cleanness and fit adornment. It is only when this homage becomes mere eye-service, when a book radically unworthy of such dignity is too delicately cultivated, too richly bound, that a poor dilettantism comes in between the reader and what he reads. Indeed, the best of volumes may, in my estimation, be destroyed as a possession by a binding so sumptuous that no fingers dare to open it for perusal. To the feudal splendours of Mr. Cobden-Sanderson, a tenpenny book in a ten-pound binding, I say fie. Perhaps the ideal library, after all, is a small one, where the books are carefully selected and thoughtfully arranged in accordance with one central code of taste, and intended to be respectfully consulted at any moment by the master of their destinies. If fortune made me possessor of one book of excessive value, I should hasten to part with it. In a little working library, to hold a first quarto of Hamlet, would be like entertaining a reigning monarch in a small farmhouse at harvesting.
Much has of late been written, however, and pleasantly written, about the collecting and preserving of books. It is not my intention here to add to this department of modern literature. But I shall select from among my volumes some which seem less known in detail to modern readers than they should be, and I shall give brief "retrospective reviews" of these as though they were new discoveries. In other cases, where the personal history of a well-known book seems worth detaching from our critical estimate of it, that shall be the subject of my lucubration. Perhaps it may not be an unwelcome novelty to apply to old books the test we so familiarly apply to new ones. They will bear it well, for in their case there is no temptation to introduce any element of prejudice. Mr. Bludyer himself does not fly into a passion over a squat volume published two centuries ago, even when, as in the case of the first edition of Harrington's Oceana, there is such a monstrous list of errata that the writer has to tell us, by way of excuse, that a spaniel has been "questing" among his papers.
These scarce and neglected books are full of interesting things. Voltaire never made a more unfortunate observation than when he said that rare books were worth nothing, since, if they were worth anything, they would not be rare. We know better nowadays; we know how much there is in them which may appeal to only one man here and there, and yet to him with a voice like a clarion. There are books that have lain silent for a century, and then have spoken with the trumpet of a prophecy. We shall disdain nothing; we shall have a little criticism, a little anecdote, a little bibliography; and our old book shall go back to the shelves before it has had time to be tedious in its babbling.