Tuesday, March 19, 2013


A City of Books

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), "Outlandish Books," in Eyes and Ears (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862), pp. 290-293 (at 291-293):
At such times I stroll into one of those establishments, now so numerous, that import and sell second-hand books. The moment that one is across the threshold he feels that he has changed worlds. All the clamor of the street, the ceaseless passage and clash of innumerable vehicles, the confusion of voices, seem smothered to a low and gentle hum, and even that is forgotten in a moment. Then one walks up and down the passages lined with books, the alcoves of books, the long tables thick with books, the corners stocked and heaped with books, as if this were a city of books, in ruins, like some Oriental city of desolation. All languages are here, and all of them are dumb. Their silent symbols hold up hieroglyphic significance to such eyes as may chance to know them. But as one might stand over a tomb, and muse who was laid therein, of what nature, disposition, history; of what experience of woe or joy in life; with what hopes, thoughts, ambitions, struggles, failures, or evanescent victories; so do we stand by the side of a book in an unknown language. What means this title-page? What are the words of introduction? Open to the middle: is this a story, an argument, a criticism, a history? Is it a grave affirmation of mighty truth, such as Bacon would have plucked down for heavenly thoughts? or is it some jester, that flashes his momentary say, and waits for an answering laughter? How causeless are causes here. These words that have fallen on many a soul like a bow on the violin, and caused vivid emotions to spring forth from their touch, are now reaching toward my eye, but without a response. They touch, but I do not sound. They are like winds blowing among petrified trees whose leaves are fast and whose branches are stiffened forever. But though their glory is gone, once they were sovereigns. This well-thumbed volume has once been a favorite. It has been the last thing consulted before sleep; a solace to lucid intervals; perhaps often a companion of journeys. Or when the new grass was soft to pavement-worn feet, and the solitary scholar has wandered out to hear blackbirds sing by the side of spring-swollen streams, or to search for cowslips in the watery edges of the marsh lands, under his arm, but with affectionate care, goes this welcome companion. A book is good company. It is full of conversation without loquacity. It comes to your longing with full instruction, but pursues you never. It is not offended at your absent-mindedness, nor jealous if you turn to other pleasures, of leaf, or dress, or mineral, or even of books. It silently serves the soul without recompense, not even for the hire of love. And yet more noble, it seems to pass from itself, and to enter the memory, and to hover in a silvery transfiguration there, until the outward book is but a body, and its soul and spirit are flown to you, and possess your memory like a spirit. And while some books, like steps, are left behind us by the very help which they yield us, and serve only our childhood, or early life, some others go with us in mute fidelity to the end of life, a recreation for fatigue, an instruction for our sober hours, and a solace for our sickness or sorrow. Except the great out-doors, nothing that has no life of its own gives so much life to you.

And here are these uncomplaining favorites, now tumbled in heaps, or keeping dusty company in this great catacomb of literature! No gentle hand now fondles them, no eye searches them. They are foreigners, strangers in a strange land. But, peradventure, there yet shall come a dried and wrinkled man, poor in garb, as befits so poor a purse, and, wandering up and down among these silent souls imprisoned in ink and paper words, who, seeking this dusky volume, shall renew his youth of joy, greet a loving, absent friend, go and sell all that he hath to buy this pearl of price to him, and faintly kindle again in his heavy, dark heart the light of a long-lost treasure.
Related post: Prince of the City of Books.

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