Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Book-Stores and Books
By Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887)
From ‘Star Papers’

NOTHING marks the increasing wealth of our times, and the growth of the public mind toward refinement, more than the demand for books. Within ten years the sale of common books has increased probably two hundred per cent., and it is daily increasing. But the sale of expensive works, and of library editions of standard authors in costly bindings, is yet more noticeable. Ten years ago such a display of magnificent works as is to be found at the Appletons’ would have been a precursor of bankruptcy. There was no demand for them. A few dozen, in one little show-case, was the prudent whole. Now, one whole side of an immense store is not only filled with admirably bound library books, but from some inexhaustible source the void continually made in the shelves is at once refilled. A reserve of heroic books supply the places of those that fall. Alas! where is human nature so weak as in a book-store! Speak of the appetite for drink; or of a bon vivant’s relish for a dinner! What are these mere animal throes and ragings compared with those fantasies of taste, those yearnings of the imagination, those insatiable appetites of intellect, which bewilder a student in a great bookseller’s temptation-hall?  1
  How easily one may distinguish a genuine lover of books from a worldly man! With what subdued and yet glowing enthusiasm does he gaze upon the costly front of a thousand embattled volumes! How gently he draws them down, as if they were little children; how tenderly he handles them! He peers at the title-page, at the text, or the notes, with the nicety of a bird examining a flower. He studies the binding: the leather,—russia, English calf, morocco; the lettering, the gilding, the edging, the hinge of the cover! He opens it and shuts it, he holds it off and brings it nigh. It suffuses his whole body with book magnetism. He walks up and down in a maze at the mysterious allotments of Providence, that gives so much money to men who spend it upon their appetites, and so little to men who would spend it in benevolence or upon their refined tastes! It is astonishing, too, how one’s necessities multiply in the presence of the supply. One never knows how many things it is impossible to do without till he goes to Windle’s or Smith’s house-furnishing stores. One is surprised to perceive, at some bazaar or fancy and variety store, how many conveniences he needs. He is satisfied that his life must have been utterly inconvenient aforetime. And thus too one is inwardly convicted, at Appletons’, of having lived for years without books which he is now satisfied that one cannot live without!  2
  Then, too, the subtle process by which the man convinces himself that he can afford to buy. No subtle manager or broker ever saw through a maze of financial embarrassments half so quick as a poor book-buyer sees his way clear to pay for what he must have. He promises himself marvels of retrenchment; he will eat less, or less costly viands, that he may buy more food for the mind. He will take an extra patch, and go on with his raiment another year, and buy books instead of coats. Yea, he will write books, that he may buy books! The appetite is insatiable. Feeding does not satisfy it. It rages by the fuel which is put upon it. As a hungry man eats first and pays afterward, so the book-buyer purchases and then works at the debt afterward. This paying is rather medicinal. It cures for a time. But a relapse takes place. The same longing, the same promises of self-denial. He promises himself to put spurs on both heels of his industry; and then, besides all this, he will somehow get along when the time for payment comes! Ah! this SOMEHOW! That word is as big as a whole world, and is stuffed with all the vagaries and fantasies that Fancy ever bred upon Hope. And yet, is there not some comfort in buying books, to be paid for? We have heard of a sot who wished his neck as long as the worm of a still, that he might so much the longer enjoy the flavor of the draught! Thus, it is a prolonged excitement of purchase, if you feel for six months in a slight doubt whether the book is honestly your own or not. Had you paid down, that would have been the end of it. There would have been no affectionate and beseeching look of your books at you, every time you saw them, saying, as plain as a book’s eyes can say, “Do not let me be taken from you.”  3
  Moreover, buying books before you can pay for them promotes caution. You do not feel quite at liberty to take them home. You are married. Your wife keeps an account-book. She knows to a penny what you can and what you cannot afford. She has no “speculation” in her eyes. Plain figures make desperate work with airy “somehows.” It is a matter of no small skill and experience to get your books home, and into their proper places, undiscovered. Perhaps the blundering express brings them to the door just at evening. “What is it, my dear?” she says to you. “Oh! nothing—a few books that I cannot do without.” That smile! A true housewife that loves her husband can smile a whole arithmetic at him at one look! Of course she insists, in the kindest way, in sympathizing with you in your literary acquisition. She cuts the strings of the bundle (and of your heart), and out comes the whole story. You have bought a complete set of costly English books, full bound in calf, extra gilt! You are caught, and feel very much as if bound in calf yourself, and admirably lettered.  4
  Now, this must not happen frequently. The books must be smuggled home. Let them be sent to some near place. Then, when your wife has a headache, or is out making a call, or has lain down, run the books across the frontier and threshold, hastily undo them, stop only for one loving glance as you put them away in the closet, or behind other books on the shelf, or on the topmost shelf. Clear away the twine and wrapping-paper, and every suspicious circumstance. Be very careful not to be too kind. That often brings on detection. Only the other day we heard it said, somewhere, “Why, how good you have been lately. I am really afraid that you have been carrying on mischief secretly.” Our heart smote us. It was a fact. That very day we had bought a few books which “we could not do without.” After a while you can bring out one volume, accidentally, and leave it on the table. “Why, my dear, what a beautiful book! Where did you borrow it?” You glance over the newspaper, with the quietest tone you can command: “That! oh! that is mine. Have you not seen it before? It has been in the house these two months;” and you rush on with anecdote and incident, and point out the binding, and that peculiar trick of gilding, and everything else you can think of; but it all will not do; you cannot rub out that roguish, arithmetical smile. People may talk about the equality of the sexes! They are not equal. The silent smile of a sensible, loving woman will vanquish ten men. Of course you repent, and in time form a habit of repenting.  5
  Another method which will be found peculiarly effective is to make a present of some fine work to your wife. Of course, whether she or you have the name of buying it, it will go into your collection, and be yours to all intents and purposes. But it stops remark in the presentation. A wife could not reprove you for so kindly thinking of her. No matter what she suspects, she will say nothing. And then if there are three or four more works which have come home with the gift-book—they will pass through the favor of the other.  6
  These are pleasures denied to wealth and old bachelors. Indeed, one cannot imagine the peculiar pleasure of buying books if one is rich and stupid. There must be some pleasure, or so many would not do it. But the full flavor, the whole relish of delight only comes to those who are so poor that they must engineer for every book. They sit down before them, and besiege them. They are captured. Each book has a secret history of ways and means. It reminds you of subtle devices by which you insured and made it yours, in spite of poverty!  7

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