Sunday, 17 July 2016
2 October 1880 - 'How to Form a Small Library' by James Mason - Part One
"Books, we know,
Are a substantial world, both pure and good."
It would be easy to fill a whole number of this magazine with the good things that have been said from time to time about books and reading. Some of these have been far-fetched, no doubt, just as we find man's expressions inclined to extravagance when he speaks of her he cares for most, but in the main they are no more enthusiastic than the subject deserves.
In books, be it remembered, we have the best products of the best minds, and in such a form, too, that we can conveniently appropriate them for our own use. Through books we enjoy the companionship of the most noble spirits, not only of the present but of the past. Think of this, and you will be inclined to re-echo the words of Sir John Herschel, "If I were to pray for a taste which should stand me in stead under every variety of circumstances, and be a source of happiness and cheerfulness to me through life and a shield against its ills, however things might go amiss and the world frown upon me, it would be a taste for reading."
We must be fully alive to all the advantages of reading or we are not likely to be much interested in anything that can be said on the formation of a small library. Unfortunately, ignorance with its narrow views gives bad counsel in many a home, and the reading of books is often regarded as a refined species of trifling, instead of being, as it is, the most economical pleasure, and the most profitable of employments.
Those in the habit of observing what goes on in the circle of their friends will readily acknowledge that reading good books, if it does no more, at any rate does this, it raises the tone of the mind and purifies the morals in much the same way as the frequenting of good society. No one, it has been said, can write in a vulgar style who is in the frequent habit of reading the Bible, and the remark may be applied, though in a less degree, to all books. A girl becomes a reflection of the graces of her favourite authors, and though she may have no wealthy or aristocratic friends, if she moves at home in the society of Shakespeare and Milton she can never be commonplace, and will always make herself respected.
By reading, too, we learn how best to make our way in the world. Almost everything worth our knowing is to be found in books, and if a girl has to earn her own living, let her read till she makes herself mistress of all connected with the business in which she is engaged. This is a way to succeed that will seldom be found to fail.
The study of books, to mention another advantage, enables us to take our place with credit in society. When people meet together it should be to exchange ideas, and the trifling conversation one hears nowadays in the company of otherwise very charming women, arises in a great measure from the fact that they have never acquired a taste for reading.
But one of the greatest charms connected with books is that by their aid we can support loneliness with tranquillity. Take the case of a girl away from home, and working every day for her living amongst strangers. How invaluable books are to her, supplying her with the most friendly counsel, the most wholesome instruction, the most rational amusement, and the best of companionship. There are thousands of young women in London and other large towns, who, if they could only be induced to form a small library, would find in it the surest safeguard against the perils which surround their solitary condition.
We might show, also, how reading puts us in the best possible position for doing good in the world, and how the formation of a taste for it is one of the best preparations for the old age that will insist on coming all too soon. But the subject is one which you girls can work out for yourselves; so think it over, and you are all so sensible, that I anticipate your coming to the conclusion that every one who can afford anything beyond the necessaries of life should set apart a definite sum at regular intervals for books, and form the habit of always looking out for new ones.
You may have it cast in your teeth that you are nothing but a book-worm. Never mind; have the answer ready, that a book-worm is one of the most respectable of worms, and that you are in company to be proud of. There is certainly one class of book-worm which I hope you will never be like; to it belong all those who love nothing but books, and are so absorbed in them that they forget their duties in real life. But this sort of bookworm in our busy age is fast becoming an extinct animal.
A well-chosen library, growing larger year by year, is an honourable part of a girl's history. No one whose opinion is worth having, but will love and esteem her the more for it.
To all girls I say, never marry a husband who has not a collection of books of more general interest than his cashbook and ledger. The reading young man makes a stay-at-home fireside-loving husband. Like to like. Unhappily, it is not always so. The book-lover marries, and is linked for life to one who thinks books an encumbrance, and the money spent on them a waste. When he comes home with a newly-bought treasure he has perhaps - it is no overdrawn picture - to slink through the shrubbery, and drop his book in at the library window, before he goes round to his own front door to ring the bell.
Alas! It is a difficult thing to convince some people that there is any necessity for buying and owning books. They point out how many circulating libraries are there in the country, and how there are public libraries and free libraries everywhere for the express benefit of earnest students and those of voracious literary appetite.
Now the value of these institutions no one can deny. But the fact remains that to get real benefit from the best books we must buy them and keep them always beside us. Think of sending to a circulating library for a copy of Spenser, or Milton, or Dante, to be read and returned in fourteen days. No; books like these are not to be run through as you would a volume of travels or a popular story. Books of reference, also - dictionaries, commentaries, and such like - we should own. Asking at the library for the loan of a dictionary would show about as ill-furnished a house as begging your next-door neighbour to lend you a teapot or a frying pan.
However, though it cannot be stated too emphatically that no one who really loves books should abandon the pleasure of possessing them, and that, however small, everyone should have a collection of her own, we do not advise the neglect of circulating libraries. In them we find the literature of the day, and with that it is the duty of everyone to be more or less acquainted. We live in the present, not in the past, and if we are to be of any use in our time we must understand what is going on.
How many books should our small library contain?
This is a question of considerable difficulty, but as we are bound to name some number, suppose we say fifty. Fifty volumes of good books form a respectable library, and they may be so selected as to contain a vast fund of beauty, wisdom and information.
Of course, compared with the number of books that have been published, fifty is but a millionth part of a drop in a bucket. You might, if your tastes lay that way, gather together over a thousand volumes on the subject of chess alone, and a fully-appointed library in theology must contain far over 30,000 volumes. But it is impossible to buy all literary works, and it is perhaps not desirable even to buy a great many, unless you wish your room to be like that of one of my friends, in which you cannot sit down for the books piled up on the chairs. Fifty will do very well to start with.
Fifty, then, be it. It will be a matter of great surprise if you stop at fifty. In book buying the appetite increases with every purchase. I began - if by way of illustration one may be permitted a scrap of autobiography - not so many years ago with modest notions and a handful of half a dozen books. Now I have considerably over four thousand volumes, and the modest notions have given place to extravagant visions of additional spoil. But none of you girls are ever likely to be in such a bad way. The famous founders of libraries have for the most part been old bachelors.
Now what will be the cost of our small library of fifty? The purse of the fairy tales that was always full of gold and silver has either been lost, or the present possessor keeps it all to herself; otherwise, we might speak of cost with perfect indifference. But as it is, we must look the question in the face, and in times when people are reluctant to spend because money is hard to obtain, we shall do our best to be economical.
At one time books could only be obtained at great expense, but things have changed since then, and the best literature is to be had at a figure which it is no exaggeration to say is no cost at all. The fifty books will cost, on average, two shillings apiece; thus five pounds will cover the whole library. It might even be done for less, but in giving a quotation it is better to err on the safe side. Should it cost quite five pounds, it will, I hope and believe, prove the best investment of that sum you ever made or can make.
The five pounds need not be paid out all at once; indeed, ought not. The accumulation of your library should be spread over a long time, or it is not likely to do you much good. Besides, what is the pleasure of going into a bookseller's shop and ordering fifty books to be sent home in a box, compared with the delight of paying the bookseller visit after visit, looking over his shelves, picking out treasure after treasure, and carrying them home in your hand?
You might begin by laying aside for the purposes of your library, say a shilling a week. What would be the result? A shilling a week makes fifty-two shillings in a year, and amounts up to a hundred and four shillings - more than the five pounds you require by four shillings - in two years. If a shilling a week is too much, say, sixpence, and if a girl cannot spare sixpence, there is no reason in the world why she should not set aside threepence. True, she will not have completed her fifty books for eight years, but she will know them in the end quite as thoroughly as if she had bought them in two, and that is the great matter.
It is impossible to gather together a library, however small, without making some sacrifice for it. And the books are all the dearer if to purchase them we have denied ourselves something. Reduce the amount you spend in dress, if that can be done without ceasing to be tidy and respectable, and your library is already gained and an incalculable addition made to your chances of happiness and usefulness.
There is no reason why we should not buy almost all our books second-hand; it makes a great difference in the expense, and the books are often none the worse for having previously formed part of another's library. Avoid, however, forming a ragged regiment. There is a joy in thumbing one's own books out of existence for oneself, but none in using books half-thumbed out of existence by other people.
The best plan in buying second-hand books is to make the acquaintance of some large dealer who has a general stock which he is frequently turning over, not one who deals in any particular class of books. Tell him the books you wish to buy, and if you have any skill in the art of management, you will not be long in making his experience of material service to your inexperience.
You cannot buy expensive editions, that is understood. But, after all, we want books to read, not to look at, and they will serve our turn if they are so clearly printed as not to try the eyes. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that there is a real enjoyment in reading a fine edition, and it would be affectation to say that we would not invariably buy the best copies if money were always at command.
Neither can you indulge in extravagant bindings. Dictionaries and books that are frequently handled should have strong leather binding; for all others the ordinary cloth is good enough. Some people who have only a half-hearted interest in paper and print, recommend that we should never bind up our magazines. On the other hand, bind up everything, say I, magazines, pamphlets, prospectuses, and programmes. You have no idea of what interest a few such odd volumes will become in the course of a few years.
While on the subject of magazine literature, we might mention that every girl should by this time have had the numbers or parts of the first volume of the GIRL'S OWN PAPER bound up, so that they may not become dirty and untidy-looking. Every girl who is not extravagant, and who wishes to make the best use of her paper, should have the "Annual" already on her bookshelf, so that, with the aid of the index, she might be able to refer to any information that has already been printed relating to matters requiring immediate attention. This is the more important to a wise girl, as it is the editor's intention to decline to repeat any assistance or instruction that has already been imparted in the first volume.
Now we can speak about the bookcase - the house in which our family of books is to be lodged. About it there is no great difficulty, for fifty books do not require much space. Between sixty and seventy inches of shelf-room will be quite enough for that number. We must, however, provide extra accommodation for library books, and for books borrowed from friends, as well as for magazines and other periodicals, so I think we would not make quite a satisfactory start unless we had at least nine feet of shelving. This would not be a tight fit.
But beware of having too much space. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does every well-regulated mind detest a bookshelf with nothing on it. Many a one has been seized by all the symptoms of bibliomania just from possessing a bookcase a few feet larger than he actually required.
The material of which the bookcase is made should, according to the laws of artistic furnishing, be the same as the principal furniture of the room in which it is to stand. Circumstances, however, must be our guide, and as I am always in favour on economy, especially in starting a new pursuit, my advice is in favour of a bookcase at first of the cheapest wood that looks respectable.
There is not much choice in the matter of form. The hanging book-shelves and the dwarf bookcase shown in the illustrations on the previous page are very neat, and will be found to answer admirably, whilst they are so simple in construction that a girl's brother, if accustomed to the use of tools, might put them together in a few spare hours.
We have now discussed the accommodation for our books. Next, about the books themselves. What are the fifty to be?