This post title could easily be a confessional moment for me, couldn’t it? Well, fear not, we won’t be delving into anything too untoward today – rather we’ll be turning back the clock to 1896 and discovering that an irrational love of books is nothing new. For it was over a century ago that Eugene Field’s posthumous book The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac was published, and it feels like a century ago (although it is in fact only two years) since my friend Sherry kindly gave me the book.
I should explain, before you wonder how tawdry this Victorian reader was, that the love affairs are strictly of the literary variety. Mr. Field was a single man up until his death, but his love affairs with books were as lively and happy as many marriages.
Initially I thought Field and I would have little in common – since he died before the end of the 19th century, he necessarily could not have encountered many of my favourite writers – and, even with the 19th century stretching out behind him, he makes no mention of Jane Austen, and only scant whispers of Hardy and Dickens. Instead he reserves his fondest passions for Boccaccio and others of that ilk. He quotes reams in Latin and Greek. And he cares deeply about fine volumes from centuries ago, beautiful bindings, and the scarcity and value within a library. I, on the other hand, don’t. I love having books signed by some of my favourite authors (including E.M. Delafield, Rose Macaulay, and Dorothy Whipple) but aside from that, I don’t care whether a book is a first edition or a scruffy reprint – except for unrelated issues of aesthetics. I’d rather have an attractive reprint from the 1980s than an ugly 1880s first edition.
So I settled down into Field’s company, expecting to enjoy the lust of a collector with the same detached interest that I read Wolf Mankowitz’s excellent novella Make Me An Offer about hunting down a valuable antique vase. But then I found Eugene Field writing things like this:
are the caskets wherein we find the immortal expressions of humanity –
words, the only things that live forever!
not to mention this:
considerate of books as I am; I wish they were. Many times I have felt
the deepest compassion for noble volumes in the possession of persons
wholly incapable of appreciating them. The helpless books seemed to
appeal to me to rescue them, and too many times I have been tempted to
snatch them from their inhospitable shelves, and march them away to a
pleasant refuge beneath my own comfortable roof tree.
A kindred spirit! A fellow bibliomaniac, indeed! No matter that the biblios he maniacked were centuries-old copies of Latin poets whilst mine are 1930s novels by middleclass British women, we are singing from the same song-sheet. This collection of essays is a bit like other Stuck-in-a-Book favourites like Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing and Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, in that it bubbles over with a love for books and reading.
Field’s collection of essays starts off quite generally, with the sort of sentiments quoted above, before getting increasingly specific. Since our tastes diverge so greatly, it was the more general sections which I truly loved. I wanted to reach out, across the entire 20th century dividing us, and shake his hand. The beautiful essays at the beginning of this volume, tastefully over-written in the paradoxical way which so inimitably belongs to the 1890s, touch so closely at the shared love of literature we all have. They could have been blog posts. For even if his books are valuable, he does not appreciate them simply as valuable objects, as though books were no different from ornaments or houses or bank vaults. As he says:
I doubt many of us have, or want, valuable libraries – but I think many of us can empathise with the assembly of a book-collection which comes from ‘veneration and love for books’. And there is one manner in which Field is simply a blogger ahead of his time. I, with Project 24 under my belt, did have to laugh at this:
Oh, Eugene! There is a place for you in the blogosphere. How many of us have had this absurd intention, and how few of us have seen it through? And even fewer of us regret this decision!
Thank you, Sherry, for sending this book to such an amenable bookshelf, and to so kindred a spirit. I hope this blog post will send Eugene Field to many other appreciative libraries around the world.
A word of warning. There are lots of unattractive print-on-demand copies dotted around, and it can be difficult to find the pre-1900 editions on bookselling websites, even though they’re actually pretty affordable once you track them down. To save you some time, they’re here on Amazon.co.uk and (cheaper) here on Amazon.com.