Friday, October 14, 2011


A Stimulant

Ian Jackson sent me Rose Macaulay's delightful essay on "Booksellers' Catalogues," from her Personal Pleasures (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1935), pp. 91-95. On receiving some booksellers' catalogues in the mail, Macaulay first resolves to resist temptation by discarding the catalogues without a second look:
How lightly, softly, insinuatingly, they arrive, flipping through the letter-box, alighting like leaves on the passage floor; green like leaves of spring, red or brown or orange like leaves of autumn, or white like drifts of snow; but each folded neatly and precisely in a wrapper of thin or stout dun-coloured paper. I will not open them; I will not slit that concealing jacket that protects me from the song of these luring sirens; like Odysseus and his sailors, I will be deaf and blind. I will cast them, as I cast without a pang all the other catalogues of merchandise that arrive in my home, unopened into the waste-paper basket.
A bit of print, however, protruding from the wrapper of one of the catalogues, catches her attention. The catalogue offers for sale, among other books, John Wilkin's Discovery of a New World in the Moone and Thomas Moufet's Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum:
My dear Bishop Wilkins and my dear Dr. Moufet, looking up at me from parallel columns. It is apparent that I cannot waste-paper them without a look; I have the greatest regard for them both, the insectophile French physician, and the mathematical, ingenious, speculative Bishop of Chester...
She puts ticks in the margins of the catalogue, including one opposite William Shipway's Campanologia, not for purchase, she tells herself, but "in case I wish to refer to its title again." Certain books in the catalogue do not merit a tick, such as modern first editions:
Why does anyone prefer a first edition of a modern book to a later one? I am told that this is one of the diseases that one cannot hope to understand unless one suffers from it. It is, I presume, called protophilism, or even protomania. Sufferers from it keep, perhaps, the first white stone they see when out walking, or the newspapers for the first day of each month, or the top button off each of their coats, or the first stamp out of each stamp-book, or the programmes of the first nights of plays, or the firstlings of the infant year. Jehovah collected firstborns, alike of men, beasts, and plants, saying, "They are mine," so the instinct has high and ancient origin....I could, for my part, read lists of modern firsts for ever, and remain as full in purse as when I began; I never feel "they are mine." I could wish that catalogues contained nothing else, and were not, instead, alive with more perilous seductions.
She reads the catalogue through to the very end:
And so down to Zola and Zoology, the former of which seems to remain a bore, even in a catalogue, while the latter is so enticing that to read the names of its dryest manuals is a stimulant.

A stimulant: yes, the word is apt. To read these catalogues is like drinking wine in the middle of the morning; it elevates one into that state of felicitous intoxication in which one feels capable of anything.
John Singer Sargent,
Woman Reading in a Cashmere Shawl

Related post: Book Catalogues.

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