Dernière mise à jour : 11 janv. 2021
Sweeter than thy unguents and cosmetics and Sabean perfumes is the smell of those old books of mine, which from the years and from the ship's hold and from constant companionship with sages and philosophers have acquired a fragrance that exalteth the soul and quickeneth the intellectuals! Let me paraphrase my dear Chaucer and tell thee, thou waster of substances, that
For me was lever han at my beddes hed
A twenty bokes, clothed in black and red
Of Aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes rich, or fidel, or sautrie;
But all be that I ben a philosopher
Yet have I but litel gold in cofre!
Books, books, books - give me ever more books, for they are the caskets wherein we find the immortal expressions of humanity - words, the only things that live forever!
I bow reverently to the bust in yonder corner whenever I recall what Sir John Herschel (God rest his dear soul!) said and wrote:
``Were I to pay for a taste that should stand me in stead under every variety of circumstances and be a source of happiness and cheerfulness to me during life, and a shield against its ills, however things might go amiss and the world frown upon me, it would be a taste for reading.
Give a man this taste and a means of gratifying it, and you can hardly fail of making him a happy man; unless, indeed, you put into his hands a most perverse selection of books. You place him in contact with the best society in every period of history - with the wisest, the wittiest, the tenderest, the bravest, and the purest characters who have adorned humanity. You make him a denizen of all nations, a contemporary of all ages. The world has been created for him."
For one phrase particularly do all good men, methinks, bless burly, bearish, phrase-making old Tom Carlyle. ``Of all things,'' quoth he, ``which men do or make here below by far the most momentous, wonderful, and worthy are the things we call books." And Judge Methuen's favorite quotation is from Babington Macaulay to this effect:
Kings, indeed! What a sorry lot are they! Said George III. to Nicol, his bookseller: "I would give this right hand if the same attention had been paid to my education which I pay to that of the prince." Louis XIV was as illiterate as the lowliest hedger and ditcher. He could hardly write his name; at first, as Samuel Pegge tells us, he formed it out of six straight strokes and a line of beauty, thus: | | | | | | S -- which he afterward perfected as best he could, and the result was LOUIS.
Still I find it hard to inveigh against kings when I recall the goodness of Alexander to Aristotle, for without Alexander we should hardly have known of Aristotle. His royal patron provided the philosopher with every advantage for the acquisition of learning, dispatching couriers to all parts of the earth to gather books and manuscripts and every variety of curious thing likely to swell the store of Aristotle's knowledge.
Yet set them up in a line and survey them--these wearers of crowns and these wielders of scepters--and how pitiable are they in the paucity and vanity of their accomplishments! What knew they of the true happiness of human life? They and their courtiers are dust and forgotten.
Judge Methuen and I shall in due time pass away, but our courtiers -- they who have ever contributed to our delight and solace -- our Horace, our Cervantes, our Shakespeare, and the rest of the innumerable train--these shall never die. And inspired and sustained by this immortal companionship we blithely walk the pathway illumined by its glory, and we sing, in season and out, the song ever dear to us and ever dear to thee, I hope, O gentle reader:
Oh, for a booke and a shady nooke,
Eyther in doore or out,
With the greene leaves whispering overhead,
Or the streete cryes all about;
Where I maie reade all at my ease
Both of the newe and old,
For a jollie goode booke whereon to looke
Is better to me than golde!
Where one has the time and the money to devote to the collection of missals and illuminated books, the avocation must be a very delightful one. I never look upon a missal or upon a bit of antique illumination that I do not invest that object with a certain poetic romance, and I picture to myself long lines of monkish men bending over their tasks, and applying themselves with pious enthusiasm thereto.
We should not flatter ourselves that the enjoyment of the delights of bibliomania was reserved to one time and generation; a greater than any of us lived many centuries ago, and went his bibliomaniacal way, gathering together treasures from every quarter, and diffusing every where a veneration and love for books.
Richard de Bury was the king, if not the father, of bibliomaniacs; his immortal work reveals to us that long before the invention of printing men were tormented and enraptured by those very same desires, envies, jealousies, greeds, enthusiasms, and passions which possess and control bibliomaniacs at the present time. (...)
Richard de Bury had exceptional opportunities for gratifying his bibliomaniac passions. He was chancellor and treasurer of Edward III., and his official position gained him access to public and private libraries and to the society of literary men. Moreover, when it became known that he was fond of such things, people from every quarter sent him and brought him old books; it may be that they hoped in this wise to court his official favor, or perhaps they were prompted by the less selfish motive of gladdening the bibliomaniac soul.
"The flying fame of our love,'' says de Bury, ``had already spread in all directions, and it was reported not only that we had a longing desire for books, and especially for old ones, but that any one could more easily obtain our favors by quartos than by money. Wherefore, when supported by the bounty of the aforesaid prince of worthy memory, we were enabled to oppose or advance, to appoint or to discharge; crazy quartos and tottering folios, precious however in our sight as in our affections, flowed in most rapidly from the great and the small, instead of new year's gifts and remunerations, and instead of presents and jewels.
Then the cabinets of the most noble monasteries were opened, cases were unlocked, caskets were unclasped, and sleeping volumes which had slumbered for long ages in their sepulchres were roused up, and those that lay hid in dark places were overwhelmed with the rays of a new light. Among these, as time served, we sat down more voluptuously than the delicate physician could do amidst his stores of aromatics, and where we found an object of love we found also an assuagement."
"If," says de Bury, "we would have amassed cups of gold and silver, excellent horses, or no mean sums of money, we could in those days have laid up abundance of wealth for ourselves. But we regarded books, not pounds; and valued codices more than florins, and preferred paltry pamphlets to pampered palfreys. On tedious embassies and in perilous times, we carried about with us that fondness for books which many waters could not extinguish."
And what books they were in those old days! What tall folios! What stout quartos!
How magnificent were the bindings, wrought often in silver devices, sometimes in gold, and not infrequently in silver and gold, with splendid jewels and precious stones to add their value to that of the precious volume which they adorned.
The works of Justin, Seneca, Martial, Terence, and Claudian were highly popular with the bibliophiles of early times; and the writings of Ovid, Tully, Horace, Cato, Aristotle, Sallust, Hippocrates, Macrobius, Augustine, Bede, Gregory, Origen, etc. But for the veneration and love for books which the monks of the mediaeval ages had, what would have been preserved to us of the classics of the Greeks and the Romans ?
And what inspiration and cheer does every book-lover find in the letter which that grand old bibliomaniac, Alcuin, addressed to Charlemagne:
"I, your Flaccus, according to your admonitions and good will, administer to some in the house of St. Martin the sweets of the Holy Scriptures; others I inebriate with the study of ancient wisdom; and others I fill with the fruits of grammatical lore. Many I seek to instruct in the order of the stars which illuminate the glorious vault of heaven, so that they may be made ornaments to the holy church of God and the court of your imperial majesty; that the goodness of God and your kindness may not be altogether unproductive of good. But in doing this I discover the want of much, especially those exquisite books of scholastic learning which I possessed in my own country, through the industry of my good and most devout master, Egbert.
I therefore entreat your Excellence to permit me to send into Britain some of our youths to procure those books which we so much desire, and thus transplant into France the flowers of Britain, that they may fructify and perfume, not only the garden at York, but also the Paradise of Tours, and that we may say in the words of the song: `Let my beloved come into his garden and eat his pleasant fruit;' and to the young: `Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved;' or exhort in the words of the prophet Isaiah: `Every one that thirsteth to come to the waters, and ye that have no money, come ye, buy and eat: yea, come buy wine and milk, without money and without price'."