BOOKS VERSUS BOOKS
CARDINAL DE RETZ, that most turbulent of statesmen, according to Madame de Sévigné, became the sweetest of retired sefiors, and did nothing but read books and feed his trout. The greatest men in all time, persons even in the shock of that greatest of all businesses, the business of the World--Lorenzo de Medici, for instance--have combined with their other energies the greatest love of books, and found no recreation at once so wholesome and so useful. Warren Hastings also, who had ruled India, yearned for the scenes of his boyhood, and lived to be happy in them. When Shenstone was a child he used to have a new book brought home from the next market town whenever anybody went to market. If he had gone to bed and was asleep, it was put under his pillow, and if it had been forgotten and he was awake, "then his mother wrapped up a piece of wood of the same form and pacified him for the night." All good and great men in all ages have been fond of books. Yes! say what you will, books open for us a world more bright, more glorious, more magnificent than our own; books store our memory with glorious pictures of all ages, and create in us a new world; and their true believer sees, feels, acts, lives, within himself. The past is open to him; he lives again with great men who passed away long, long ago. He is, says Leigh Hunt, again in communion with the past, again interested in its adventures, grieving with its griefs, laughing with its merriment--forgetting the very chair and room he is sitting in. Who, in the mysterious operation of things, shall dare to assert in what unreal corner of time and space that man's mind is; or what better proof he has of the existence of the poor goods and chattels about him which at that moment are (to him) non-existent? "Oh," people say, "but he wakes up and sees them there! Well, he woke down "to them and saw the rest." What we distinguish into dreams and realities are, in both cases, but representations of impressions. So says Leigh Hunt, and who, I ask, will deny it? I once read a story of a German who lived only in his dreams; he dreamt on continuously from night to night, and went nowhere in the day. He dreamt he was prince of a fairy island in a far-off sea; he was married to a beautiful princess with whom he lived (in his dreams) for years. At last she died. He hoped there was no such thing as death in dreams, but he never saw her again; but then he, too, pined; then he, too, died--is not this strong proof? Indeed I may almost say with Leigh Hunt, that I more frequently wake out of common life to them or to thoughts caused in them, than out of them to common life. Call me dreamer, visionary, what you will, I would not change for a world! What is to me the Emperor of the French, or what are all the heroes of to-day compared with the heroes of poetry, of history, or romance--and yet I can enjoy this world perhaps as well as most. Which is more exciting, the spectacle of the funeral of the Duke of Wellington, or this:
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burnt on the water; the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick; with them, the oars were silver
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water, which they beat, to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description; she did lie
In her pavilion (cloth of gold of tissue)
O'er-picturing that Venus, where we see
The fancy outwork Nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, and what
They undid, did.
O rare for Antony!
From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned in the market-place, did sit alone
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in Nature.
Can you not see her, dreamer, where she comes? People nowadays have no faith. They can't believe what science tells them is not true. If I were to read to them (these unbelievers, I mean) the exquisite travels of William W. de Rubenquis or Marco Polo they would laugh scornfully, and stick themselves up upon the top of the pinnacle of Science, and say, "See what progress I have made! It surprises me how people could be in such a state of ignorance!" "What deplorable darkness!--how can you read such stuff?" etc. etc. etc. I beg leave to assure their mightinesses that it was by these despised first steps that they reached their marvellous wisdom, and humbly to suggest that if they had a little more respect for their forefathers, it would by no means lessen their own greatness, or sit ill upon them. Many of these despised ignoramuses were greater men than we shall ever be; surely they cannot be blamed for their childlike and simple trust; what does the Bible say about little children--read that and ponder, thou worshipper of Science! Is not this exquisite? Marco Polo, speaking of a desert in Tartary, says, "In it there are not either beasts or birds; they say that there dwelt many spirits in this wilderness, which caused great and marvellous illusions to travellers and made them perish; for if any stay behind and cannot see his company, he shall be called by his name, and so, going out of the way, is lost. In the night they hear, as it were, the noise of a company, which taking to be theirs, they perish likewise. Also a great unendurable face that uses to stare at people as they went by. Concerts of music-instruments are sometimes heard in the air, likewise drums and noise of armies. They go therefore close together, hang bells on their beasts' necks, and set marks if any stray." Oh, what a deal you wise people lose! But you must be a universalist in literature to be a true reader; you must not, as too many do, read only such books as are representatives of some opinion or passion of your own. " The universalist," says Leigh Hunt, " is the only reader who can make something out of books for which he has no predilection." I believe you will always find something to repay your trouble in every book that has ever been written. In some of the ponderous black-letter volumes of theology, for instance, you stumble upon most beautiful thoughts--in Archbishop Leighton, I think, there is the following: " Archimedes was not singular in his fate, the most part of mankind die unexpectedly first poring over the figures they have traced upon the sand." Even if you are shut up in a country-inn parlour on a wet day with an old almanac or an odd volume of old magazines, I entreat you not to despair. I pledge myself, you shall find something to interest you, or it is your own fault.
Charles Lamb was not quite a universalist; he says he could read any book with these exceptions--court-calendars, directories, pocket-books, draught-boards bound and lettered on the back, scientific treatises, almanacs, statutes at large, the works of Hume, Gibbon, Robertson, Beattie, Soame Jenyns, and generally all those volumes which "no gentleman's library should be without,"--these he says are books which are no books.
Most people, says the preface of a little series called "Readable Books," have their own opinion of what constitutes a readable book. The late Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Charles Wood, gave the palm to Thucydides--an opinion with which many an old University Fellow would doubtless coincide. Dr. Dry-as-Dust, F.S.A., would prefer a black-letter volume; an unfledged student of the law, Punch or the Gent; while a more mature Mr. Briefless, possibly, Blackstone or Chitty. Lady Theresa Angelus would select a volume of the Rev. Mr. Oriel's sermons or Dr. Dove's tracts; Mr. Cobden a daily newspaper; and Major Rawlinson a stamped brick from Nineveh. Some worthy men would be all for popular science, and others for progress essays; while we question if a commercial traveller would hear of anything but the time-tables of Bradshaw. What a deal these people lose!