John Hill Burton.

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Thus books can be burned, but they don't burn, and though in great fires
libraries have been wholly or partially destroyed, we never hear of a
library making a great conflagration like a cotton mill or a tallow
warehouse. Nay, a story is told of a house seeming irretrievably on
fire, until the flames, coming in contact with the folio Corpus Juris
and the Statutes at Large, were quite unable to get over this joint
barrier, and sank defeated. When anything is said about the burning of
libraries, Alexandria at once flares up in the memory; but it is
strange how little of a satisfactory kind investigators have been able
to make out, either about the formation or destruction of the many
famous libraries collected from time to time in that city. There seems
little doubt that Cæsar's auxiliaries unintentionally burnt one of them;
its contents were probably written on papyrus, a material about as
inflammable as dried reeds or wood-shavings. As to that other burning in
detail, when the collection was used for fuel to the baths, and lasted
some six weeks - surely never was there a greater victim of historical
prejudice and calumny than the "ignorant and fanatical" Caliph Omar al
Raschid. Over and over has this act been disproved, and yet it will
continue to be reasserted with uniform pertinacity in successive rolling
sentences, all as like each other as the successive billows in a swell
at sea.[60]

[Footnote 60: One of the latest inquirers who has gone over the ground
concludes his evidence thus: "Omar ne vint pas à Alexandrie; et s'il y
fut venu, il n'eut pas trouvé des livres à brûler. La bibliothèque
n'existait plus depuis deux siècles et demi." - Fournier, L'Esprit dans
l'Histoire. What shall we say to the story told by Zonaras and repeated
by Pancirole, of the burning, in the reign of the Emperor Basilisc, of
the library of Constantinople, containing one hundred and twenty
thousand volumes, and among them a copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey,
written in golden letters on parchment made from the intestines of the

Apart, however, from violence and accident, there is a constant decay of
books from what might be called natural causes, keeping, like the decay
of the human race, a proportion to their reproduction, which varies
according to place or circumstance; here showing a rapid increase where
production outruns decay, and there a decrease where the morbid elements
of annihilation are stronger than the active elements of reproduction.
Indeed, volumes are in their varied external conditions very like human
beings. There are some stout and others frail - some healthy and others
sickly; and it happens often that the least robust are the most
precious. The full fresh health of some of the folio fathers and
schoolmen, ranged side by side in solemn state on the oaken shelves of
some venerable repository, is apt to surprise those who expect mouldy
decay; the stiff hard binding is as angular as ever, - there is no
abrasion of the leaves, not a single dog-ear or a spot, or even a
dust-border on the mellowed white of the margin. So, too, of those
quarto civilians and canonists of Leyden and Amsterdam, with their
smooth white vellum coats, bearing so generic a resemblance to Dutch
cheeses, that they might be supposed to represent the experiments of
some Gouda dairyman on the quadrature of the circle. An easy life and an
established position in society are the secret of their excellent
preservation and condition. Their repose has been little disturbed by
intrusive readers or unceremonious investigators, and their repute for
solid learning has given them a claim to attention and careful
preservation. It has sometimes happened to me, as it probably has to
many another inquisitive person, to penetrate to the heart of one of
these solid volumes and find it closed in this wise: - As the binder of a
book is himself bound to cut off as little as possible of its white
margin, it may take place, if any of the leaves are inaccurately folded,
that their edges are not cut, and that, as to such leaves, the book is
in the uncut condition so often denounced by impatient readers. So have
I sometimes had to open with a paper-cutter the pages which had shut up
for two hundred years that knowledge which the ponderous volume, like
any solemn holder-forth whom no one listens to, pretended to be
distributing abroad from its place of dignity on the shelf. Sometimes,
also, there will drop out of a heavy folio a little slip of
orange-yellow paper covered with some cabalistic-looking characters,
which a careful study discovers to be a hint, conveyed in high or low
Dutch, that the dealer from whom the volume was purchased, about the
time of some crisis in the Thirty Years' War, would be rather gratified
than otherwise should the purchaser be pleased to remit to him the price
of it.

Though quartos and folios are dwindling away, like many other
conventional distinctions of rank, yet are authors of the present day
not entirely divested of the opportunity of taking their place on the
shelf like these old dignitaries. It would be as absurd, of course, to
appear in folio as to step abroad in the small-clothes and queue of our
great-grandfathers' day, and even quarto is reserved for science and
some departments of the law. But then, on the other hand, octavos are
growing as large as some of the folios of the seventeenth century, and a
solid roomy-looking book is still practicable. Whoever desires to
achieve a sure, though it may be but a humble, niche in the temple of
fame, let him write a few solid volumes with respectably sounding
titles, and matter that will rather repel the reader than court him to
such familiarity as may beget contempt. Such books are to the frequenter
of a library like country gentlemen's seats to travellers, something to
know the name and ownership of in passing. The stage-coachman of old
used to proclaim each in succession - the guide-book tells them now. So
do literary guide-books in the shape of library-catalogues and
bibliographies, tell of these steady and respectable mansions of
literature. No one speaks ill of them, or even proclaims his ignorance
of their nature, and your "man who knows everything" will profess some
familiarity with them, the more readily that the verity of his
pretensions is not likely to be tested. A man's name may have resounded
for a time through all the newspapers as the gainer of a great victory
or the speaker of marvellous speeches - he may have been the most
brilliant wit of some distinguished social circle - the head of a great
profession - even a leading statesman; yet his memory has utterly
evaporated with the departure of his own generation. Had he but written
one or two of these solid books, now, his name would have been
perpetuated in catalogues and bibliographical dictionaries; nay,
biographies and encyclopædias would contain their titles, and perhaps
the day of the author's birth and death. Let those who desire posthumous
fame, counting recollection as equivalent to fame, think of this.

It is with no desire to further the annihilation or decay of the stout
and long-lived class of books of which I have been speaking, that I now
draw attention to the book-hunter's services in the preservation of some
that are of a more fragile nature, and are liable to droop and decay. We
can see the process going on around us, just as we see other things
travelling towards extinction. Look, for instance, at school-books, how
rapidly and obviously they go to ruin. True, there are plenty of them,
but save of those preserved in the privileged libraries, or of some that
may be tossed aside among lumber in which they happen to remain until
they become curiosities, what chance is there of any of them being in
existence a century hence? Collectors know well the extreme rarity and
value of ancient school-books. Nor is their value by any means fanciful.
The dominie will tell us that they are old-fashioned, and the pedagogue
who keeps a school, "and ca's it a acaudemy," will sneer at them as
"obsolete and incompatible with the enlightened adjuncts of modern
tuition;" but if we are to consider that the condition of the human
intellect at any particular juncture is worth studying, it is certainly
of importance to know on what food its infancy is fed. And so of
children's play-books as well as their work-books; these are as
ephemeral as their other toys. Retaining dear recollections of some that
were the favourites, and desiring to awaken from them old recollections
of careless boyhood, or perhaps to try whether your own children inherit
the paternal susceptibility to their beauties, you make application to
the bookseller - but, behold, they have disappeared from existence as
entirely as the rabbits you fed, and the terrier that followed you with
his cheery clattering bark. Neither name nor description - not the
announcement of the benevolent publishers, "Darton, Harvey, and
Darton" - can recover the faintest traces of their vestiges.[61] Old
cookery-books, almanacs, books of prognostication, directories for
agricultural operations, guides to handicrafts, and other works of a
practical nature, are infinitely valuable when they refer to remote
times, and also infinitely rare.

[Footnote 61: I question if Toy Literature, as it may be called, has
received the consideration it deserves, when one remembers how great an
influence it must have on the formation of the infant mind. I am not
prepared to argue that it should be put under regulation - perhaps it is
best that it should be left to the wild luxuriance of nature - but its
characteristics and influence are surely worthy of studious observation.
It happened to me once to observe in the library of an eminent divine a
large heap of that class of works which used to be known as "penny
bookies." My reverend friend explained, in relation to them, that they
were intended to counteract some pernicious influences at work - that he
had made the important and painful discovery that the influence of this
class of literature had been noticed and employed by the enemies of the
Church. In confirmation of this view, he showed me some passages, of
which I remember the following: -

"B was a Bishop who loved his repose,
C was a Curate who had a red nose,"

D was a Dean, but how characterised I forget. I did not think, however,
that the proposed antidote, in which the mysteries of religion and the
specialties of a zealous class in the English Church were mixed up with
childish prattle, was much more decorous or appropriate than what it was
intended to counteract.]

But of course the most interesting of all are the relics of pure
literature, of poems and plays. Whence have arisen all the anxious
searches and disappointments, and the bitter contests, and the rare
triumphs, about the early editions of Shakespeare, separately or
collectively, save from this, that they passed from one impatient hand
to another, and were subjected to an unceasing greedy perusal, until
they were at last used up and put out of existence? True it was to be
with him -

"So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky."

But his tuneful companions who had less vital power have lain like some
ancient cemetery or buried city, in which antiquaries have been for a
long age digging and searching for some fragment of intellectual

One book, and that the most read of all, was hedged by a sort of
divinity which protected it, so far as that was practicable, from the
dilapidating effects of use. The Bible seems to have been ever touched
with reverent gentleness, and, when the sordid effects of long handling
had become inevitably conspicuous, to have been generally removed out of
sight, and, as it were, decently interred. Hence it is that, of the old
editions of the Bible, the copies are so comparatively numerous and in
such fine preservation. Look at those two folios from the types of
Guttenburg and Fust, running so far back into the earliest stage of the
art of printing, that of them is told the legend of a combination with
the devil, which enabled one man to write so many copies identically the
same. See how clean and spotless is the paper, and how black, glossy,
and distinct the type, telling us how little progress printing has made
since the days of its inventors, in anything save the greater rapidity
with which, in consequence of the progress of machinery, it can now be

The reason of the extreme rarity of the books printed by the early
English printers is that, being very amusing, they were used up,
thumbed out of existence. Such were Caxton's Book of the Ordre of
Chyualry; his Knyght of the Toure; the Myrour of the World; and the
Golden Legende; Cocke Lorell's Bote, by De Worde; his Kalender of
Shepeherdes, and suchlike. If any one feels an interest in the process
of exhaustion, by which such treasures were reduced to rarity, he may
easily witness it in the _débris_ of a circulating library; and perhaps
he will find the phenomenon in still more distinct operation at any
book-stall where lie heaps of school-books, odd volumes of novels, and a
choice of Watts's Hymns and Pilgrim's Progresses. Here, too, it is
possible that the enlightened onlooker may catch sight of the
book-hunter plying his vocation, much after the manner in which, in some
ill-regulated town, he may have beheld the _chiffonniers_, at early
dawn, rummaging among the cinder heaps for ejected treasures. A ragged
morsel is perhaps carefully severed from the heap, wrapped in paper to
keep its leaves together, and deposited in the purchaser's pocket. You
would probably find it difficult to recognise the fragment, if you
should see it in the brilliancy of its resuscitation. A skilled and
cautious workman has applied a bituminous solvent to its ragged edges,
and literally incorporated, by a sort of paper-making process, each
mouldering page into a broad leaf of fine strong paper, in which the
print, according to a simile used for such occasions, seems like a
small rivulet in a wide meadow of margin. This is termed inlaying, and
is a very lofty department in the art of binding. Then there is,
besides, the grandeur of russia or morocco, with gilding, and tooling,
and marbling, and perhaps a ribbon marker, dangling out with a
decoration at its end - all tending, like stars, and garters, and
official robes, to stamp the outer insignia of importance on the book,
and to warn all the world to respect it, and save it from the risks to
which the common herd of literature is liable. The French have, as
usual, dignified the process which restores diseased books to health and
condition by an appropriate technical name - it is Bibliuguiancie; and
under that title it will be found fitly and appropriately discussed in
the Dictionnaire de Bibliologie of Peignot, who specially mentions two
practitioners of this kind as having conferred lustre on their
profession by their skill and success - Vialard and Heudier.[62]

[Footnote 62: There is something exceedingly curious, not only in its
bearing on the matter of the text, but as a record of some peculiar
manners and habits of the fourteenth century, in Richard of Bury's
injunctions as to the proper treatment of the manuscripts which were
read in his day, and the signal contrast offered by the practice both of
the clergy and laity to his decorous precepts: -

"We not only set before ourselves a service to God in preparing volumes
of new books, but we exercise the duties of a holy piety, if we first
handle so as not to injure them, then return them to their proper places
and commend them to undefiling custody, that they may rejoice in their
purity while held in the hand, and repose in security when laid up in
their repositories. Truly, next to the vestments and vessels dedicated
to the body of the Lord, holy books deserve to be most decorously
handled by the clergy, upon which injury is inflicted as often as they
presume to touch them with a dirty hand. Wherefore, we hold it expedient
to exhort students upon various negligencies which can always be
avoided, but which are wonderfully injurious to books.

"In the first place, then, let there be a mature decorum in opening and
closing of volumes, that they may neither be unclasped with precipitous
haste, nor thrown aside after inspection without being duly closed; for
it is necessary that a book should be much more carefully preserved than
a shoe. But school folks are in general perversely educated, and, if not
restrained by the rule of their superiors, are puffed up with infinite
absurdities; they act with petulance, swell with presumption, judge of
everything with certainty, and are unexperienced in anything.

"You will perhaps see a stiff-necked youth, lounging sluggishly in his
study, while the frost pinches him in winter time, oppressed with cold,
his watery nose drops, nor does he take the trouble to wipe it with his
handkerchief till it has moistened the book beneath it with its vile
dew. For such a one I would substitute a cobbler's apron in the place of
his book. He has a nail like a giant's, perfumed with stinking filth,
with which he points out the place of any pleasant subject. He
distributes innumerable straws in various places, with the ends in
sight, that he may recall by the mark what his memory cannot retain.
These straws, which the stomach of the book never digests, and which
nobody takes out, at first distend the book from its accustomed closure,
and, being carelessly left to oblivion, at last become putrid. He is not
ashamed to eat fruit and cheese over an open book, and to transfer his
empty cup from side to side upon it; and because he has not his alms-bag
at hand, he leaves the rest of the fragments in his books. He never
ceases to chatter with eternal garrulity to his companions; and while he
adduces a multitude of reasons void of physical meaning, he waters the
book, spread out upon his lap, with the sputtering of his saliva. What
is worse, he next reclines with his elbows on the book, and by a short
study invites a long nap; and by way of repairing the wrinkles, he
twists back the margins of the leaves, to the no small detriment of the
volume. He goes out in the rain, and now flowers make their appearance
upon our soil. Then the scholar we are describing, the neglecter rather
than the inspector of books, stuffs his volume with firstling violets,
roses, and quadrifoils. He will next apply his wet hands, oozing with
sweat, to turning over the volumes, then beat the white parchment all
over with his dusty gloves, or hunt over the page, line by line, with
his forefinger covered with dirty leather. Then, as the flea bites, the
holy book is thrown aside, which, however, is scarcely closed in a
month, and is so swelled with the dust that has fallen into it, that it
will not yield to the efforts of the closer.

"But impudent boys are to be specially restrained from meddling with
books, who, when they are learning to draw the forms of letters, if
copies of the most beautiful books are allowed them, begin to become
incongruous annotators, and wherever they perceive the broadest margin
about the text, they furnish it with a monstrous alphabet, or their
unchastened pen immediately presumes to draw any other frivolous thing
whatever that occurs to their imagination. There the Latinist, there the
sophist, there every sort of unlearned scribe tries the goodness of his
pen, which we have frequently seen to have been most injurious to the
fairest volumes, both as to utility and price. There are also certain
thieves who enormously dismember books by cutting off the side margins
for letter-paper (leaving only the letters or text), or the fly-leaves
put in for the preservation of the book, which they take away for
various uses and abuses, which sort of sacrilege ought to be prohibited
under a threat of anathema.

"But it is altogether befitting the decency of a scholar that washing
should without fail precede reading, as often as he returns from his
meals to study, before his fingers, besmeared with grease, loosen a
clasp or turn over the leaf of a book. Let not a crying child admire the
drawings in the capital letters, lest he pollute the parchment with his
wet fingers, for he instantly touches whatever he sees.

"Furthermore, laymen, to whom it matters not whether they look at a book
turned wrong side upwards or spread before them in its natural order,
are altogether unworthy of any communion with books. Let the clerk also
take order that the dirty scullion, stinking from the pots, do not touch
the leaves of books unwashed; but he who enters without spot shall give
his services to the precious volumes.

"The cleanliness of delicate hands, as if scabs and postules could not
be clerical characteristics, might also be most important, as well to
books as to scholars, who, as often as they perceive defects in books,
should attend to them instantly, for nothing enlarges more quickly than
a rent, as a fracture neglected at the time will afterwards be repaired
with increased trouble." - Philobiblion, p. 101.]

I have recourse to our old friend Monkbarns again for a brilliant
description of the prowler among the book-stalls, in the performance of
the function assigned to him in the dispensation of things, - renewing my
already recorded protest against the legitimacy of the commercial part
of the transaction: -

"'Snuffy Davie bought the game of Chess, 1474, the first book ever
printed in England, from a stall in Holland, for about two groschen, or
twopence of our money. He sold it to Osborne for twenty pounds, and as
many books as came to twenty pounds more. Osborne resold this inimitable
windfall to Dr Askew for sixty guineas. At Dr Askew's sale,' continued
the old gentleman, kindling as he spoke, 'this inestimable treasure
blazed forth in its full value, and was purchased by royalty itself for
one hundred and seventy pounds! Could a copy now occur, Lord only
knows,' he ejaculated, with a deep sigh and lifted-up hands, - 'Lord only
knows what would be its ransom! - and yet it was originally secured, by
skill and research, for the easy equivalent of twopence sterling. Happy,
thrice happy, Snuffy Davie! - and blessed were the times when thy
industry could be so rewarded!'"

In such manner is it that books are saved from annihilation, and that
their preservers become the feeders of the great collections in which,
after their value is established, they find refuge; and herein it is
that the class to whom our attention is at present devoted perform an
inestimable service to literature. It is, as you will observe, the
general ambition of the class to find value where there seems to be
none, and this develops a certain skill and subtlety, enabling the
operator, in the midst of a heap of rubbish, to put his finger on those
things which have in them the latent capacity to become valuable and
curious. The adept will at once intuitively separate from its friends
the book that either is or will become curious. There must be something
more than mere rarity to give it this value, although high authorities
speak of the paucity of copies as being everything. David Clement, the
illustrious French bibliographer, who seems to have anticipated the
positive philosophy by an attempt to make bibliography, as the Germans
have named it, one of the exact sciences, lays it down with authority,
that "a book which it is difficult to find in the country where it is
sought ought to be called simply _rare_; a book which it is difficult to
find in any country may be called _very rare_; a book of which there are
only fifty or sixty copies existing, or which appears so seldom as if
there never had been more at any time than that number of copies, ranks
as _extremely rare_; and when the whole number of copies does not exceed
ten, this constitutes _excessive rarity_, or rarity in the highest
degree." This has been received as a settled doctrine in bibliography;
but it is utter pedantry. Books may be rare enough in the real or
objective sense of the term, but if they are not so in the nominal or
subjective sense, by being sought after, their rarity goes for nothing.
A volume may be unique - may stand quite alone in the world - but whether
it is so, or one of a numerous family, is never known, for no one has
ever desired to possess it, and no one ever will.

But it is a curious phenomenon in the old-book trade, that rarities do
not always remain rare; volumes seeming to multiply through some
cryptogamic process, when we know perfectly that no additional copies

Online LibraryJohn Hill BurtonThe book-hunter : etc. → online text (page 20 of 33)