On the topic of personal essay collections, I’ve just started reading Christopher Morley’s Safety Pins (1925) which I’m loving so far. I’ll write about it properly at some point in the dim and distant future, but I simply had to share this essay with you. Any one of us could write something under the title ‘On Visiting Bookshops’ – perhaps we should? – but here is what Morley had to say (you, like the previous owner of Safety Pins, would probably be tempted to pencil ‘Yes’ by the first sentence.)
It is a curious thing that so many people only go into a bookshop when they happen to need some particular book. Do they never drop in for a little innocent carouse and refreshment? There are some knightly souls who even go so far as to make their visits to bookshops a kind of chivalrous errantry at large. They go in not because they need any certain volume, but because they feel that there may be some book that needs them. Some wistful, little forgotten sheaf of loveliness, long pining away on an upper shelf – why not ride up, fling her across your charger (or your charge account), and gallop away. Be a little knightly, you booklovers!
The lack of intelligence with which people use bookshops is, one supposes, no more flagrant than the lack of intelligence with which we use all the rest of the machinery of civilisation. In this age, and particularly in this city, we haven’t time to be intelligent.
A queer thing about books, if you open your heart to them, is the instant and irresistible way they follow you with their appeal. You know at once, if you are clairvoyant in these matters (libre-voyant, one might say), when you have met your book. You may dally and evade, you may go on about your affairs, but the paragraph of prose your eye fell upon, or the snatch of verses, or perhaps only the spirit and flavour of the volume, more divined than reasonably noted, will follow you. A few lines glimpsed on a page may alter your whole trend of thought for the day, reverse the currents of the mind, change the profile of the city. The other evening, in a subway car, we were reading Walter de la Mare’s interesting little essay about Rupert Brooke. His discussion of children, their dreaming ways, their exalted simplicity and absorption, changed the whole tenor of our voyage by some magical chemistry of thought. It was no longer a wild, barbaric struggle with our fellowmen, but a venture of faith and recompense, taking us home to the bedtime of a child.
The moment when one meets a book and knows, beyond shadow of doubt, that that book must be his – not necessarily now, but some time – is among the happiest excitements of the spirit. An indescribable virtue effuses from some books. One can feel the radiations of an honest book long before one sees it, if one has a sensitive pulse for such affairs. Its honour and truth will speak through the advertising. Its mind and heart will cry out even underneath the extravagance of jacket-blurbings. Some shrewd soul, who understands books, remarked some time ago on the editorial page of the Sun’s book review that no superlative on a jacket had ever done the book an atom of good. He was right, as far as the true bookster is concerned. We choose our dinner not by the wrappers, but by the veining and gristle of the meat within. The other day, prowling about a bookshop, we came upon two paper-bound copies of a little book of poems by Alice Meynell. They had been there for at least two years. We had seen them before, a year or more ago, but had not looked into them, fearing to be tempted. This time we ventured. We came upon two poems – ‘To O, Of Her Dark Eyes,’ and ‘A Wind of Clear Weather in England.’ The book was ours – or rather, we were its, though we did not yield at once. We came back the next day and got it. We are still wondering how a book like that could stay in the shop so long. Once we had it, the day was different. The sky was sluiced with a clearer blue, air and sunlight blended for a keener intake of the lungs, faces seen along the street moved us with a livelier shock of interest and surprise. The wind that moved over Sussex and blew Mrs. Meynell’s heart into her lines was still flowing across the ribs and ledges of our distant scene.
There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love, and like that colossal adventure it is an experience of great social import. Even as the tranced swain, the booklover yearns to tell others of his bliss. He writes letters about it, adds it to the postscript of all manner of communications, intrudes it into telephone messages, and insists on his friends writing down the title of the find. Like the simple-hearted betrothed, once certain of his conquest, ‘I want you to love her, too!’ It is a jealous passion also. He feels a little indignant if he finds that anyone else has discovered the book also. He sees an enthusiastic review – very likely in The New Republic – and says, with great scorn, ‘I read the book three months ago.’ There are even some perversions of passion by which a booklover loses much of his affection for his pet if he sees it too highly commended by some rival critic.
This sharp ecstasy of discovering books for one’s self is not always widespread. There are many who, for one reason or another, prefer to have their books found out for them. But for the complete zealot nothing transcends the zest of pioneering for himself. And therefore working for a publisher is, to a certain type of mind, a never-failing fascination. As H.M. Tomlinson says in Old Junk, that fascinating collection of sensitive and beautifully poised sketches which came to us recently with a shock of thrilling delight:
To come upon a craft rigged so, though at her moorings and with sails furled, her slender poles upspringing from the bright plane of a brimming harbour, is to me as rare and sensational a delight as the re-discovery, when idling with a book, of a favourite lyric.To read just that passage, and the phrase the bright plane of a brimming harbour, is one of those ‘rare and sensational delights’ that set the mind moving on lovely journeys of its own, and mark off visits to the bookshop not as casual errands of reason, but as necessary acts of devotion. We visit bookshops not so often to buy any one special book, but rather to re-discover, in the happier and more expressive words of others, our own encumbered soul.