Wednesday, August 17, 2016


You Cannot Be Allowed

James Henry (1798-1876), Aeneidea, or Critical, Exegetical, and Aesthetical Remarks on the Aeneis, Vol. I (London: Williams and Norgate, 1873), pp. lxxvii-lxxviii:
Returning from Dresden to Ireland through London, and calling at the library of the British Museum with a present of a recently published work of my own, I begged to be allowed to look at a passage in a volume which stood on a shelf close beside me. "Have you permission to read in the library?" asked the officer in charge. "No, I have not; nor have I come for the purpose of reading; nor do I intend to stay longer in London than this day. All I ask is permission to look at a few lines in that volume. I shall do so without sitting down or stirring out of this spot. I shall not require to have the book in my hands for quite five minutes." "You cannot be allowed; it is contrary to rule. But if you get a banker, or the principal of any college, seminary or commercial establishment in London, to write a letter to Sir Henry Ellis, certifying that you are a fit and proper person to read in the library, Sir Henry Ellis will, on receipt of such letter, post you a ticket of admission, and on that ticket you can come and read in the library daily for the next three months." "I do not want admission to the library; I am in it already. I only wish to have that book, there, in my hands for five minutes, and then to go away and trouble you no more." "Impossible; it is contrary to rule." "Can I see Sir Henry Ellis?" "Certainly." Sir Henry Ellis made his appearance, replied to my request in the same terms, and I proceeded to Ireland, more than ever convinced that even in civilization there is a golden mean, every step beyond which is a step further from humanity, and towards an extreme in which ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes non emollit mores sed sinit esse feros, and consoling myself en vrai Darwiniste as I am, with the prospect I saw opening in the distance for my successors, that books in British libraries continuing to be guarded as if they were Hesperides' apples, readers would in due course come to be born with the strength of Hercules, and the instinct to use it on the proper occasion.

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