The Thing About Books

History must be constantly corrected and moderated by the seeing and handling of things.
—Hilaire Belloc

There are many reasons to collect books: admiration of an author, fascination with a subject or time period, love of the physical beauty of specially-printed or what are called “press books,” beautiful bindings, illustrations, even because it was a childhood favorite, to name a few. There are scholarly reasons, too. A wonderful discipline called “critical bibliography,” as one scholar explains, provides a kind of “grammar of literary investigation,” especially on questions of textual problems and authorial intent. In a day (a far better day than today) when an author’s intention was considered at least somewhat helpful in determining what a book is about, critical bibliography was foundational to the question. And it was book collectors—amateurs, and often very learned amateurs—who, through their intelligence and diligent sleuthing, acquired and eventually bequeathed to scholarly posterity the physical objects, the artifacts, of the scholar’s task.

The premise is kind of a lovely one: the physical book and all the elements comprising it—editing, printing, binding, illustrating, indeed all the “book arts”—can have either an intentional or an “accidental” impact on the transmission of the intellectual content. This applies to modern machine-printed books as much as to letterpress, or hand-set, books. It is a historical enterprise with its own methods and terminology (as witness the large bibliographical manuals), beginning with the examination of objects (books) and arriving at a narrative pertaining to the chronological story and vagaries of a given text.

But my own collecting didn’t begin there. I began by collecting content. I was a young man, probably nineteen, when I read for the first time Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis. It changed my life. This is a (happily) common story, I know. I was a young fundamentalist Christian, and when Lewis showed me that as a Christian I could, in a sense, own all the great literature and that all truth, beauty, and goodness were mine, I was transformed. Or at least, potentially transformed. I needed “eyes to see,” so I compiled a list of works from what he read and determined to read them all so that I, too, might be C. S. Lewis.

And of course, not being anything like C. S. Lewis I didn’t get far beyond George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton, especially, proved an education for me. He fired my imagination. He turned the world upside down and, as he says, what better way to see the world in all its wonderment than upside down. I started with his novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, and then his magical collection of essays, Tremendous Trifles—titles I found in a local used bookstore. After that I couldn’t get enough Chesterton. I scoured used bookshops, Salvation Army stores, Goodwill, and all varieties of thrift shops, antique shops, library sales, junk shops—these were the hills in which I searched for gold.

Over time I’ve compiled a fairly respectable collection of Chesterton first editions, many in dust jackets, some of them signed or inscribed. Recently I acquired a copy of The Napoleon of Notting Hill inscribed by Chesterton to a man named Hubert Paynter, someone he met in 1916 when Paynter was recovering from war wounds, and to whom Chesterton later served as godfather upon his reception into the Roman Catholic Church. That touches me. An artifact of friendship and faith. A couple of years ago in London I found Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s own copy of The Club of Queer Trades. It’s fun to wonder what the impact was on this politician of this book’s curious observation “how facts obscure truth … [t]he mere facts! Do you really admit—are you still so sunk in superstition, so clinging to dim and historic altars, that you believe in facts?”

A favorite of mine, and what served at the time as a spur to my imagination toward the artifactual value of books, is a wonderful copy of Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a first edition in its original dust jacket. I found it while studying at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., some forty years ago. On Saturdays I worked in a downtown second-hand bookstore, sweeping floors, stocking shelves, packing books. I found this copy on the shelf and it was inscribed “For my dear Lizzie / from Aunt Marie.” There was a name, “L. Firmin,” at the top of the front free endpage. I knew exactly who that was. It was Chesterton’s childhood friend, Lizzie Firmin—one of two sisters mentioned in the second chapter of his Autobiography. “Aunt Marie,” I knew, was Chesterton’s mother! And it found its way here because the Firmin family had moved from London to Vancouver, B.C. I showed my discovery to the bookseller, who promptly doubled the price, putting it well beyond my reach. Some days later Dr. James Houston, professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, visited the store. When I showed him the Chesterton volume, he looked at it and said, “Steve, you should own this book. I want to buy it for you.” It is an artifact rich in associations connected both to Chesterton and his childhood and his family, and for me with the sweet generosity of a holy man.

As you can see, books can be artifacts in several respects, including artifacts of relationships, events and occasions, and intellectual influences. An interesting example is a book I found locally. It was a copy of Anthony Powell’s Agents and Patients (1936), inscribed, “For Scott Fitzgerald / from / Anthony Powell / Hollywood / July 20th 1937 / with admiration.” Powell was an important English author whose twelve-volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time is broadly recognized as a modern masterpiece of upper class manners, and some have hailed it as one of the best works of literature of the twentieth century. His narrative technique is commonly compared to that of Fitzgerald’s. This book turned out to be an artifact of the only meeting between the two authors, Powell being at the time one of the very few British admirers of Fitzgerald’s work, especially The Great Gatsby, which he read every year. It happened at the commissary at MGM Studios where both were employed writing screenplays. In Powell’s autobiography he says that after their meeting he sent Fitzgerald a copy of his book, From a View to a Death, only after, he writes, first asking Fitzgerald if he wouldn’t mind. Powell mentions nothing about this particular gift, dated the actual day of their lunch, which leads me to wonder if he forgot about it or perhaps was slightly embarrassed by his presumption and invented a different account. I purchased it, and since I collect neither Powell nor Fitzgerald soon after “flipped” it to a London dealer for ten times what it cost me, which enabled me to purchase books for my various collections that I could have never otherwise afforded. Collectors do that sort of thing from time to time to fund their passion.

Until about a year ago I was acquiring some extraordinary books from the library of Julian Jebb, a grandson of the writer and controversialist Hilaire Belloc. Julian, unlike his siblings (one became an abbot, another a nun, and the third an architect of sacred structures) rejected his Catholic faith, resented his grandfather, and chose a life of worshipping “beauty and beautiful people.” Sadly, he became an alcoholic and killed himself at age fifty in 1984. But he was greatly loved by a lot of eminent writers and artists, and was himself somewhat accomplished as a journalist and filmmaker. I acquired a lot of interesting items from his collection that are inscribed or signed by Graham Greene, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound (“From Ezra Pound!! A Slave is a man who waits for someone to come and set him free!”), Truman Capote (I own Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I make no apology), and more.

My favorite item from his library is indeed a remarkable artifact. It’s a record of a significant meeting and a hilarious exchange between the twenty-eight-year-old Jebb and the complicated personality and writer Evelyn Waugh. In April of 1962 Jebb interviewed Waugh for The Paris Review, which was significant not just for understanding Waugh, but it was one of the few cooperative interviews the great-but-often-cantankerous writer would ever give. In the letter he wrote in advance, Jebb promised that he wouldn’t bring a tape recorder, imagining from what Waugh had written in his highly autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), that he had a phobia of tape recorders. They met in the lobby of a London hotel, and the first thing Waugh asked was, “Where is your machine?” Jebb explained that he hadn’t brought one. Waugh proceeded to needle him as they headed toward the elevator: “Have you sold it?” Well yes he had, but three years earlier when moving overseas. How much had he paid for it? How much had he sold it for? Whom did he sell it to? “Do you have shorthand, then?” Jebb answered no. “Then it was foolhardy of you to sell your machine, wasn’t it?” The interview began after Waugh changed into pajamas, lit up a huge cigar, and got into bed. It turned out to be a brilliant, if short, interview, and it’s clear from Waugh’s letters and subsequent meetings that he was fond of Julian Jebb. He later signed a copy—the copy in my collection—of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold for Jebb and inscribed it, “You sold your machine because of Gilbert! Too bad! Best wishes, Evelyn Waugh 10/11/63.”

There are, of course, pitfalls to collecting books, moral and otherwise: greed, idolatry, debt, boorishness (“Let me show you just one more delicious morsel from my collection ….”). But I think book collecting in itself is a Good Thing. It’s not about mere accumulation, it’s about a host of disciplines: the scholarly disciplines; the disciplines of taste, technique, and study; and even financial discipline (or so I’m told.) And it’s about passion, and about love. And imagination. Any one of us, on almost any financial level, can participate in curating a small portion of Christian civilization. There are writers out there who are outstanding but under-collected. It can be a lot of fun putting together a significant collection for relatively little cost. The key to good collecting is a guiding idea or principle that arises out of a passionate interest, and is rooted in an intelligent understanding. And in this age of gnostic abstraction, solipsism, and the pervasive illusion of mastery of one’s own universe—if we don’t do it, who will?

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