Friday, August 31, 2012


Pleasure from the Dead Languages

John Halsham (pseudonym of George Forrester Scott, 1864-1937), Lonewood Corner: A Countryman's Horizons (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1907), pp. 244-249:
Books are property, in the accurate sense of the word, personal belongings with their own standing and habitation on familiar shelves, to be found without fumbling in the dark; they have outward characters of their own as well as inward, idiosyncrasies of form and bindings; they have been in your service, the greater part of them, thirty years, let us say, and they will stay on your shelves as long as you can need them, and a little longer. In their matter, they reflect your taste and leanings by their range and their limits; they are all sealed to you by your bold or whimsical autograph, by the pencil ticks which mark a beauty in your particular genre, a handsome seconding of some favourite heresy of your own, by the annotations and parallel places which link them to their fellows above and below. These I call books, the tried friends whose leather coats begin to show a sympathetic crack or two as your own case wears a little the worse for the turning over of the world, whose matter has gone to make part of your inward contexture ever since you began to go to school.

Of this sort are the rows of brown backs, with here and there a chance vanity of second-hand vellum or new livery of buckram, neat but not gaudy, whose gilding catches a glint from the low fallen fire when I come into the warm lull of my burrow from frozen journeys; such the good company which puts out of mind the binding frost upon the garden or the winter storm sweeping across the lonely fields, and has power to fill most of the corners of the empty house. I keep no unmanageable rout, needing step-ladders or catalogues. My odd hundreds have multiplied by the relaxed standards of age beyond the rigid limit of an earlier choice; but perhaps for some little time past have approached their full number. I have nearly all the old books; and the new ones grow ever less indispensable, more and more obnoxious to the wise man's objection, "ils nous empêchent de lire les anciens." And by the old books I mean the real ancients, the first fathers of the rest, the backs in Leyden calf or Venetian vellum, which seem to inspire in most visitors to my shelves either a puzzled shyness or an almost personal animosity. I sometimes make a guess, while I warp one of the brown folios over the log-fire on a winter night, how many others in this most leisured county may be busy with an author of that standing: fifty, I make it, when I am in a sociable mood; when the pride of singularity swells, I doubt of five. In either frame of mind, I am happy in thinking how absolutely right is the choice of the real classics. It is, after all, well to begin at the beginning and know something of the hard-wrought alphabet which all our later exercises lazily shift and combine, perhaps with a consistently decreasing power of seeing the symbols in their true scope and force. And then, what a security and an economy of energy in using the result of Time's sieve! There are few things in life which so affect me with a comfortable wonder as the absolute fixity, beyond any sort of appeal, of the court of ultimate judgment in literature; the conversion of the weathercock opinion of contemporary criticism, right by chance and wrong by instinct, into the immovable security of the full orb of time, is a cheerful miracle which might keep even a weekly reviewer from despair. To my mind, there is a natural barrier between us and the books of our own age; coeval literature is flesh of our flesh, and it needs a generation or two to intervene and attenuate the affinity in order to sanction the commerce.


Each must answer for himself: to me the safer part seems to be not to try to help Time with the momentary sling of his winnowing-shovel, but to be content to grub in the heap of corn that lies at his feet, secure from all the winds of heaven. Therefore my book-case contains as a basis, in all sorts of editions, from the safe comment of Gronovius to the jaunty graces of Gildersleeve, the Greeks and Latins pretty complete. I read through them at a steady plod, and when I reach the gate of horn in my several journeys, I presently turn about and begin again: and on the whole I get more pleasure from the dead languages—spite of the drag of an inveterate hobble in construing—than from any other sort of reading. This judgment, though it amuses some of my acquaintance and seems to irritate others in a surprising manner, is deliberate and mature. There are those who are instinctive classics at seven, and remain prize schoolboys at seventy; it is another matter to scrape through a casual Pass under protest, and after certain experimental excursions to settle down, unbothered by accents and led by no specious lure of philology to make the classics the main indoor business of one's days. That the Greeks and Latins wrote amazingly better than many modern novelists, and are a great deal more amusing than most plays; that there may be more downright human interest and colour in a historian two thousand years dead than in yesterday's "word-painting" by special correspondents, and more practicable politics in Plato than in last night's debate: these claims one deprecatingly advances from time to time to one's more indulgent friends, and retires before their smiles to the safe covert of singularity whereto no one offers to follow.
The "wise man" who said that new books "nous empêchent de lire les anciens" was Joseph Joubert (1754-1824), in his Pensées (Titre XVIII, § LVII, my translation):
People never stop asking for new books. There are, in those which we've had for a long time, inestimable treasures of knowledge and pleasure unknown to us, because we neglect to pay attention to them. That's the great disadvantage of new books: they keep us from reading the old ones.

On demande sans cesse de nouveaux livres, et il y a, dans ceux que nous avons depuis longtemps, des trésors inestimables de science et d'agréments qui nous sont inconnus, parce que nous négligeons d'y prendre garde. C'est le grand inconvénient des livres nouveaux: ils nous empêchent de lire les anciens.

Dirk van Hoogstraten (1596–1640), Bearded Man Reading

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