Friday, July 26, 2013


Uses for Books

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), Waste Books E.311 (tr. R.J. Hollingdale):
Do we write books so that they shall merely be read? Don't we also write them for employment in the household? For one that is read from start to finish, thousands are leafed through, other thousands lie motionless, others are jammed against mouseholes, thrown at rats, others are stood on, sat on, drummed on, have gingerbread baked on them or are used to light pipes with.

Schreibt man denn Bücher bloß zum Lesen? oder nicht auch zum Unterlegen in die Haushaltung? Gegen eins, das durchgelesen wird, werden Tausende durchgeblättert, andere Tausend liegen stille, andere werden auf Mauslöcher gepreßt, nach Ratzen geworfen, auf andern wird gestanden, gesessen, getrommelt, Pfefferkuchen gebacken, mit andern werden Pfeifen angesteckt, hinter dem Fenster damit gestanden.
For some reason Hollingdale didn't translate the final phrase "hinter dem Fenster damit gestanden." A friend and informant comments:
Rather than try to preserve the passive through the whole thing, I think I would break it up into smaller sentences and translate the last section actively: "Some people use books to light their pipes, and others stand behind the window with them."
Lichtenberg was a noted Anglophile, and I wonder if a passage from Joseph Addison, The Spectator, no. 85 (Thursday, June 7, 1711), could have been at the back of his mind. Both Addison and Lichtenberg mention pipes and pastries in connection with uses of books:
It is the Custom of the Mahometans, if they see any printed or written Paper upon the Ground, to take it up and lay it aside carefully, as not knowing but it may contain some Piece of their Alcoran. I must confess I have so much of the Mussulman in me, That I cannot forbear looking into every printed Paper which comes in my Way, under whatsoever despicable Circumstances it may appear; for as no mortal Author, in the ordinary Fate and Vicissitude of Things, knows to what Use his Works may, some time or other, be applied, a Man may often meet with very celebrated Names in a Paper of Tobacco. I have lighted my Pipe more than once with the Writings of a Prelate; and know a Friend of mine, who, for these several Years, has converted the Essays of a Man of Quality into a kind of Fringe for his Candlesticks. I remember in particular, after having read over a Poem of an Eminent Author on a Victory, I met with several Fragments of it upon the next rejoicing Day, which had been employ'd in Squibs and Crackers, and by that means celebrated its Subject in a double Capacity. I once met with a Page of Mr. Baxter under a Christmas Pye. Whether or no the Pastry-Cook had made use of it through Chance or Waggery, for the Defence of that superstitious Viande, I know not; but upon the Perusal of it, I conceived so good an Idea of the Author's Piety, that I bought the whole Book.
For more on this subject see Holbrook Jackson, Anatomy of Bibliomania (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1950), Part VIII (Of the Uses of Books), pp. 129-153, who cites Addison but not Lichtenberg.

In this drawing by Pierre Calmettes we see another use for books:

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