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When my old friend the artist John Nash died I inherited his books. I imagined him reading them by lamplight, just as I read when I was a boy, the twin wicks faintly waving inside the Swan glass chimney. There they all were, those handsome runs of pocket-size volumes which preceded the 1930s Penguins and the subsequent paperbacks. Some were small-pack books and had gone to the Western Front. Some were hiking books and had gone up mountains. Some were still a bit painty, having gone on landscape expeditions. All showed signs of having had a life far from that in the studio bookcase. All spoke of belonging to a man who, when young, had been a convert to the Open Road.

The creed of the Open Road had been written by George Borrow:

There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?

(Lavengro, Chapter 25)

Jack Kerouac would say something similar. As Passchendaele approached, John Nash returned his beloved Everyman edition of Borrow to his sweetheart, along with the letters she had sent him, believing that he would not see her or them again.

So here they were, the very same volumes he’d carried with him. I read in their curly endpapers the great promise which good books make. ‘Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.’ When last read, their owner thought that he would never see his native Buckinghamshire again, either. But a gypsy boy who had been called up from the same county comforted him. They would both find life sweet once more in the Chilterns.

When I knew John Nash in his middle age he walked nowhere, but the wind from the heath would whip into his little car and blow the cigarette smoke about, and the easel would rattle in the boot, and life was indeed very sweet. Green-back Penguins breathing murder slid about under the seat. Now in what had been his studio I began to put his Everymans in order.

In 1904 Joseph Dent and his son Hugh decided on nothing less than publishing a library of one thousand of the best authors at a price the ordinary reader could afford – a shilling a volume. They got the writer Ernest Rhys to advise them and it was he who christened the project the Everyman Library. The format was a sturdy cloth with gold on the spines. Compared with today’s paperbacks they were quite hefty, with sharp corners. You would know that you were carrying a book in your pocket. They had marvellous introductions by scholars like Holbrook Jackson, May Sinclair and Eugene Mason, and the keen Everyman-ist would soon, without knowing it, become well acquainted with Eng. Lit.

Joseph Dent was born in Darlington in 1849, the son of a housepainter. From childhood on he adored not only the contents of a book but also its binding. Now, during the few years before the First World War, he was able to present English Literature itself from his model factory in Letchworth Garden City to the book-hungry public. The 1870 Education Act had by the early twentieth century created an insatiable readership, though mostly of people whose wages did not run to six or more shillings a volume. The public and commercial libraries thrived but there arose a longing to possess books, especially the great authors, and to fill one’s own bookcase became an urgent pleasure. Working men and women no longer wanted a small pile of miscellaneous reading but a library which looked like a library. In his youth John Nash was an insatiable reader and at first had aspirations to become a writer rather than an artist. His brother Paul, too, was well-read. Partly because of this, the two of them would be in the van of a wonderful era of book illustration as they set wood-engravings to text during the 1930s.

Now and then a bus ticket or a pressed flower or a shopping list floats from John’s books. How diligently they have kept his place all these years. I am pulling from the dusty shelf his Everymans, many volumes of them, their golden spines still fairly bright. And next Dent’s ambitious run of Aldine classics which preceded his Everyman Library. These were nothing less than pocket luxuries which imitated the books that Aldus Manutius published in exquisite small octavo editions during the Renaissance. Dent actually named his premises in Bedford Street Aldine House, throwing out a challenge to London publishers. The army of new readers would be given beautiful-to-handle books. One of my first buys from a second-hand ledge when I was a teenager was the Aldine edition of Le Morte D’Arthur. Faintly worn, in soft green leather, the four volumes had the famous Aldine owl stamped on them and Aubrey Beardsley’s sensational illustrations inside – many of them, and each protected by a filmy tissue. The previous buyer had written inside, ‘Gerald Gurney from his beloved wife, February 1899’. What a Valentine. I found several more de luxe Aldine books amongst John’s youthful collection, two passed on to him by Paul: Thomas Dekker’s The Guls Hornebooke and The Belman of London, each containing disgraceful advice.

From the creation of the Everyman Library onwards publishers began to notice a populace which, as well as being book-devouring, was using what spare time it had to leave work and home for the countryside. Hiking, cycling, climbing and eventually motoring, these passionate new freedoms were served by some brilliant writing – and some new runs of pocket volumes. Thus came Routledge’s Railway Library, Dent’s Open Air Library (which included a fine 1932 edition of Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches perfectly illustrated by John Nash’s friend Eric Daglish), Argosy Books’ ‘For the Rucksack’ and county guides printed on India paper, the easier to carry around. Cape’s Travellers’ Library series was ‘designed for the pocket, or for the small house where shelf-space is limited’. Among my own treasures in this edition are four volumes of A. E. Coppard’s short stories and Sarah Orne Jewett’s masterpiece The Country of the Pointed Firs with a preface by her admirer Willa Cather. Nearly all these modestly priced and delightfully produced editions possess introductions which are an hors d’oeuvre literary treat in themselves. The Travellers’ Library was a joint venture into the easily-carried volume by Jonathan Cape and William Heinemann, immediately after the First World War. It was a swift recognition of the freedoms to be found in the countryside. Even the unemployed could and did walk away from it all, if only for a day. Designed so that all the volumes are of uniform thickness, no matter how many pages, with covers made especially durable against ‘hasty packing’, this pocket series, I find, becomes more beautiful with age and use. Just to hold one of these 7×4-inch little books is an enchantment. How have we degenerated from such publishing to the brick-sized fiction of today? To carry a couple of the latter on a fell walk puts one in the company of Pilgrim and his load.

Chatto & Windus’s Phoenix Library of the Thirties – ‘Pocket size. 3s 6d net per volume’ – is also a run worth having. My first encounter with it was when, aged 18, I saw Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in a Rye bookshop. I had a birthday book-token which ran to two volumes of this previously unheard-of novel. Thus it began, the lifelong loyalty to this white and blue edition with, inside the wrapper, the glorious red and gold spine, and inside the cover the memory river briefly halted here and there by a Philippe Jullian drawing.

The Phoenix Library began with Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria and there soon arrived other old friends: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner – ‘an object lesson in the proper way of bringing Satan into modern fiction’, said the TLS – and eventually, volumes three and four of Marcel Proust! The final volume had to be translated by Stephen Hudson aka Sidney Schiff, because its original translator Scott Moncrieff had died. Hudson was a friend of John Nash and there is a written instruction on the fly-leaf on how he was to read Proust. Since John only possessed this last volume, I doubt if he learned how. And I doubt even more if he ever read Dainty Poems of the XIX Century in Harrap’s Choice Books series. When we die our bookshelves can libel us.

Thin paper was the order of the pocket-edition day. In 1911 John Murray produced a thin-paper edition of the works of Stanley J. Weyman, twenty-two volumes in all. Conan Doyle, the Brontës, the Brownings, all came whispering from the press. There was no excuse for not carrying them about. Books were light luggage. They might also be nice to touch, like a lover or a cat. Thus the – now rather unpleasant – feel of suede and velvet-bound copies of the Rubáiyát of Omár Khayyám and Sappho. Their nap clings to my fingers. Their naked girls are tipped in, making fluttering pictures which one would not like the servants to see. What a fuss it all is, this bedside binding. There were a number of these naughty volumes to tremble over. Quite my favourite is The Garden of Kama by Laurence Hope. Heinemann’s Windmill Library. Twenty editions by 1930.

Were I but one of my serving girls
To solace his pain to rest!
Shake out the sand from the soft loose curls,
And hold him against my breast!
(‘The Regret of the Ranee in the Hall of Peacocks’)

Two things were imperative for these publications: the word ‘Library’ and a spine to be proud of. The latter after all is what one sees on the bookshelf. I confront them discerningly, giving them the due that they deserve. For the years have not dimmed their gold but have actually brought a radiance to their design. Here comes something wonderful, a rare edition of Poems by John Clare edited by Arthur Symons. It is bound in a rich dull green and has a lotus-pattern art nouveau spine. This is the selection of Clare’s poetry which Edmund Blunden read as a boy and which he took to the Western Front, and which, when he taught at Oxford, became the seed corn of all future Clare studies. This little book.

Macmillan’s Golden Treasury series of easily-carried literature began with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury itself in 1861 – ‘a uniformly printed series in 18mo, with Vignette Titles by J. E. Millais, T. Woolner etc.’ It was the sculptor Thomas Woolner who drew the piping Pan on the cover. My particular treasure in this edition is Letters of Cowper, 1884. John Constable died with Cowper’s Letters in his hand. And here comes the copy of Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia in the Golden Treasury format, which Paul Nash gave to his brother in 1929, and which gave Paul his ‘imagery’ and also his philosophy. He has inscribed it elegantly.

Lolling here, I could go on for pages. I am like Jean Rhys who, when she was old, forgot time, breakfast, lunch, combing her hair, and would topple out of bed towards the nearest bookcase and – read! The chapters and the hours and the cigarettes would pass. Poring over the little volumes I am glad to have been given them – grateful, happy for them. Dear, dear books, never shall you go to the Oxfam shop.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 17 © Ronald Blythe 2008

About the contributor

Ronald Blythe was a novelist, essayist and historian whose works include The Age of Illusion, Akenfield, The View in Winter, The Assassin and The Wormingford Trilogy. He delighted in the physical nature of books, their paper, their odour, their signs of having travelled, been handled, treasured, possessed.

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