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Dining in Parnassus

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Second-hand booksellers often find the reading of their books not just an occupational hazard but a waste of their precious time. They would rather spend it on keeping up with auction prices, reading their competitors’ catalogues or, nowadays, coursing the net. Literary values are left on the margin. Earlier this year, I found myself looking for likely candidates in our catalogue selection of Anthologies and fell deep into the trap of reading beyond the title-page and becoming immersed in delightful contents.

The simple catalogue entry would have read: Jackson, Holbrook: Bookman’s Holiday: a recreation for booklovers, designed by H.J., Faber & Faber, 1945. Red cloth, gilt, in d/w. Very good. Then the price, based on its fine condition, despite wartime paper, the price we’d paid for it, the price of the last copy that went through our hands, and the likely price of any copy that might be available elsewhere if we had more than one order: £15 if I’m feeling pessimistic, £25 if I’m a little more cheerful.

I wouldn’t normally mention further details that might interest the customer: Holbrook Jackson’s reputation as a bookman, his authorship of The Eighteen-Nineties, The Anatomy of Bibliomania, All Manner of Folk and biographies of William Morris and George Bernard Shaw; or his choice of Faber as a publisher, when it was the leading literary imprint in London and had T. S. Eliot as a Director; or the advertisements on the back cover for four books by Walter de la Mare, among them Behold This Dreamer, which Hugh Walpole described as ‘one of the finest anthologies I know’, and his beautifully produced and illustrated Love, which Desmond MacCarthy called ‘a very rich book . . . on one of the deepest [themes] that can engage our minds’.

If it had been a more valuable first edition, I might easily have quoted the blurb. ‘Bookman’s Holiday shows what writers

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Second-hand booksellers often find the reading of their books not just an occupational hazard but a waste of their precious time. They would rather spend it on keeping up with auction prices, reading their competitors’ catalogues or, nowadays, coursing the net. Literary values are left on the margin. Earlier this year, I found myself looking for likely candidates in our catalogue selection of Anthologies and fell deep into the trap of reading beyond the title-page and becoming immersed in delightful contents.

The simple catalogue entry would have read: Jackson, Holbrook: Bookman’s Holiday: a recreation for booklovers, designed by H.J., Faber & Faber, 1945. Red cloth, gilt, in d/w. Very good. Then the price, based on its fine condition, despite wartime paper, the price we’d paid for it, the price of the last copy that went through our hands, and the likely price of any copy that might be available elsewhere if we had more than one order: £15 if I’m feeling pessimistic, £25 if I’m a little more cheerful. I wouldn’t normally mention further details that might interest the customer: Holbrook Jackson’s reputation as a bookman, his authorship of The Eighteen-Nineties, The Anatomy of Bibliomania, All Manner of Folk and biographies of William Morris and George Bernard Shaw; or his choice of Faber as a publisher, when it was the leading literary imprint in London and had T. S. Eliot as a Director; or the advertisements on the back cover for four books by Walter de la Mare, among them Behold This Dreamer, which Hugh Walpole described as ‘one of the finest anthologies I know’, and his beautifully produced and illustrated Love, which Desmond MacCarthy called ‘a very rich book . . . on one of the deepest [themes] that can engage our minds’. If it had been a more valuable first edition, I might easily have quoted the blurb. ‘Bookman’s Holiday shows what writers think about living and writing apropos their predecessors, their contemporaries, and themselves. It is not a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes or elegant extracts, but a mosaic of quotations, each with its own individuality and interest, but together forming a picture of the man (or woman) behind the book.’ Jackson’s preface expands on this. He had started the exercise as a recreation but couldn’t help feeling that ‘such an assemblage of self-revelatory passages might serve . . . a more purposeful purpose: ethnological, perhaps, psychological, certainly’. He realized that his well-read readers would probably be able to add relevant passages about writers from their own memories, so he avoided the most familiar biographical extracts and confined himself to lesser-known byways. Some writers who have the reputation of being ‘unprofitable dullards’ can still produce amusing material: Hannah More, Mrs Hemans and the Reverend James Beattie all proved ‘sprightly contributors’ and ‘the sententious Anna Seward, refreshingly apposite’. The recreation depends on two basic factors, a full table of contents showing the different categories in which quotations are organized, and a reliable index. By now, of course, I’d forgotten my cataloguing role and was deeply involved in the holiday that Jackson had devised. And, for further confirmation of its value, the only acknowledgement in the Preface was to the incomparable bookman Daniel George, who compiled a sequence of anthologies between 1935 and 1960 under his own (pseudonymous) name, and who served for most of that period as the principal reader for Jonathan Cape. Where then to start? Take a dip at random in one of the intriguing categories? Table Talk or Bookmanship? The Magic Pen or The Golden Calf ? By its nature an anthology invites random selection, as if the reader were picking a flower from a garden, in the knowledge that the first flower would lead to further fancies. And, with paper in short supply in 1945, there was no question of each page containing a single entry, as you might find in a modern commonplace book: a page in Bookman’s Holiday can include extracts from Ruskin on kissing, Swinburne on Jowett’s defence of the marriage-tie, an early letter from Thomas Carlyle to his future wife and the following from the Letters of Emily Eden: ‘we hear that Lord Byron is going to be a good boy, and will never be naughty no more, and he is really and truly writing a new version of the Psalms’. Jackson’s first two categories are Portraits and Self Portraits; if we are to agree with his overall project, we should probably start here. If we take a familiar author like Anthony Trollope, subject of several recent biographies, we can judge the editor’s selectiveness by his choice of quotation as to whether it will cast Trollope in a new light. This comes from Frederick Locker-Lampson’s My Confidences (1896):
Hirsute and taurine in aspect, he would glance at you from behind two fierce spectacles. His orderly tones had the penetrative capacity of two people quarrelling, and his voice would ring through and through you, and shake the windows in their frames, while all the time he was most amiably disposed towards you under his waistcoat. To me his viso sciolto and bluff geniality were very attractive, and so were his gusty denunciations, but most attractive of all was his unselfish nature. Literary men might make him their exemplar . . . for he may quite well have been the most generous man of letters, of mark, since Walter Scott.
This might lead us to a similar portrait of Scott. In the category of Characters, there is an admirable letter from Byron to Stendhal, pointing out how mistaken he has been in thinking Scott ‘unworthy of attention’: ‘I say that [he] is as nearly a thorough good man as man can be, because I know it by experience to be the case.’ Having now read these descriptions of our literary cast by their contemporaries, we can use the invaluable index and see how each writer fares under further categories. Trollope recurs first in Travel Pictures. The extract comes from his Autobiography which I thought I knew well because I once chose it as a set book for a distinguished reading group in New York. I certainly didn’t remember the incident quoted, when Trollope and his party were travelling in North Italy and needed to book supper and beds in Verona, where they were arriving at midnight. A telegram was sent from Milan, for which the bill was enormous, but nothing had prepared them for their amazing reception: ‘waited upon by a glorious personage dressed like a beau for a ball, with half-a-dozen almost as glorious behind him’. Three carriages were provided, each with a pair of grey horses, and the house was all lit up when they approached. The landlord, who was expecting nothing less than royalty, ‘treated them with clemency’, admitting that he had never before received a telegram. Trollope’s character is filled out in further quotations. From Michael Sadleir, his first serious biographer, we learn that ‘towards freshness or presumption he was unmerciful’. A lady sitting next to him at dinner remarked that he seemed to have a very good appetite. ‘None at all, madam,’ he replied, ‘but, thank God, I am very greedy.’ Excerpts in either category rely again on his Autobiography: his well-known view that a piece of cobbler’s wax on his chair was the surest aid to writing a book, much more important than literary inspiration; the pleasure that he took in reading, combined with a corresponding sadness that he had never retained what he read; and his thorough condemnation of any writer who put money-making before integrity, ‘in fact sells shoddy for broadcloth’. This selective editing has now produced a mini-biography and would be just as effective if we had chosen to study Robert Southey or John Ruskin, or Thomas and Jane Carlyle. It might inspire us to find a fuller biography and to consult the extensive bibliography which appears before the index: enough to fill several shelves of a library and to provide many years of enjoyable organic reading. Every reader of Bookman’s Holiday will be guaranteed to find pleasing or pertinent extracts. It could be this from Charles Lamb’s Letters:
I dined in Parnassus, with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Rogers and Tom Moore – half the poetry of England constellated and cluster’d in Gloucester Place. It was a delightful Even! Coleridge was in his finest vein of talk, had all the talk . . . the Muses were dumb while Apollo lectured.
Or this from Oliver Wendell Holmes:
I went to the Club last Saturday, and . . . sat by the side of Emerson who always charms me with his delicious voice, his fine sense of wit, and the delicate way he steps about among the words of his vocabulary, – if you have seen a cat picking her footsteps in wet weather, you have seen the picture of Emerson’s exquisite intelligence, feeling for its phrase or epithet . . .
Or this from Prior’s Life of Edmund Malone (1860):
‘Lord, Mr Dryden, how can you be always poring over those musty books? I wish I were a book, and then I should have more of your company.’ ‘Pray, my dear,’ replied old John, ‘if you do become a book let it be an almanac, for then I shall change you every year.’
With these examples could we not encourage a publisher to compile a similar anthology of writing from 1930 to the present day?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 16 © John Saumarez Smith 2007


About the contributor

Bookman’s Holiday was a book that John Saumarez Smith wanted to keep, but he knew how little space there was on his shelves at home. When he came to put this copy among his anthologies and commonplace books, he was surprised to find that he had owned a copy, for which he paid £1.50, for at least 20 years. Bookmanship clearly doesn’t date.

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