Reprint: The Outsides of Books: What They Mean to Us by Nettie Palmer

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No Books.

The problem of what to do with our books in an ordinary house, where no room is set apart for a library, is a very real one. Books have an exuberant habit of increasing by compound interest, and people who like a place for everything, and everything in its place, come to consider an overflow of books as just so much rubbish to be removed. People of that temperament, though, have their own remedy, a very sound one, if only it is used in time. The good old way, the simple plan: If you don't want to be faced with difficulties about books, don't have any books. Refuse to collect them, either for yourself or your family. Ignore them. Evict them. Personally, I don't know how this is done. I couldn't do it, but I know there are homes where books are simply eliminated; I have seen them; we have all seen them. You look round a room and see tables, chairs, flowers perhaps, a gramophone perhaps, but no disturbing element in the form of books. With regard to books, the room is as bare as the back of your hand. Now I call that masterly: ingene solitude. Those who actually love, books, the disturbers of our mental peace, may deplore the barrenness of such rooms. Perhaps in some moods I do so myself. Still, one must admire the consistently bare surface presented to the eye and mind. "They make a desert and call, it peace." Somehow it's hard to find ex- pressions of unmixed admiration for the achievement of bookless calm! Yet I repeat it; the achievement is masterly, and I don't know how it is done.

Books As Upholstery.

Once or twice it has happened to me, as it may happen to the best of us, to stay in a house where the choice of books was simply inexplicable. One was the home of a wealthy widow, who had just had her whole house redecorated and refurnished. The room where I slept had a elaborate fireplace, and the mantelpiece had several little brackets and shelves at the sides. The shelves could not be left empty, but they would not hold large books; besides, this was a bedroom, unfit for large tomes. The upholsterer had evidently realised this; for he had supplied, along with the elaborate mantelpiece, twelve inches of short books to fill each of the shelves. The most becoming series of books that would fit those shelves happened to be the series known as the Temple Classics, bound in soft green kid, very delightful. Twelve inches of those books gave you quite a selection. Three volumes of Dante, three of Sterne, two of Matthew Arnold, Abelard, and Heloise, a good deal of Carlyle, "much riches in a little room"' indeed! The trouble was, though, that the upholsterer had gauged the space on the shelves so well that none of the books would come out. He had also, I fancy, chosen them "classical" in hopes that nobody would ever want to take them out, as he did not want them disturbed. As for me, I felt that I now knew the meaning of the words, "spirits on prison."

Another Solution.

You can deal with books by refusing to deal with them at all, that is by abolishing them. You can solve the problem by treating them as upholstery and never reading them. Other people, again, though fond of books, honestly dislike seeing them about a room. It is a distaste that I cannot understand, but I suppose some people feel the same about their friends, enjoying their existence, but not wanting to be made aware of it too often. Lately I came across this description, for instance, in Wells' book, "The World of William Clissold." The writer is describing his simple and delightful study, and says:  

There is a large cupboard in which books are hidden, for the backs of modern books, if they are displayed, talk overmuch.

So you hide them in a cupboard, where they might be rifles, or jam-pots, or old boot ! So if you, enter that room, admitted to be a study, you would not be aware of the presence of books at all!  Most of us have seen rooms that came to be called "study," in which there actually were no books; probably a drawer containing fishing-tackle was their nearest approach to the material of meditation. But Clissold has books, and has a comfortable home for them, only he condemns them to lie concealed. His reason is that the backs of modern books are too blatant, and perhaps that is true. We have learnt the ways of reclame too thoroughly. Every book is its own advertisement right up to the day of its death, especially since the glaring jackets have been made so attractive that people seldom have the courage to discard them. Well, Clissold solves the problem to his own satisfaction; a book should he read but not seen. He is entitled to his own choice.

More Positive Pleasure.  

All these solutions, it will be noticed are negative. They are ways of treating books so that we are almost untroubled by them. What about people who enjoy the troubling things? Even apart from their contents, for instance, French books are probably the most troublesome of all, for they are bound in thin paper. The theory is that you are a wealthy person with a well-established library and a pretty taste in bind-ings. What you want, then, is a well-printed book on good paper; to you the temporary binding, which the book wears when you buy it, is negligible, as you intend to have the book bound at once by your ancestral book-binder. He will use the special morocco or calf, or half-calf (I always wonder which end of a calf they use for that), which will agree with all the other volumes in your collection. Good.  But most people are not like you; the paper cover in which a book is born is good enough for them. The book falls to pieces soon; so much the better for the booksellers. And besides, how attractive those French books can be in their fresh paper covers! Leaving aside those that are in covers with pictures, there are those enormous series in an inconspicuous lemon-yellow. No, not, "yellowbacks." This binding can cover anything from the sermons of Bossuet to the latest word by Proust's successors; the point is its fresh attractiveness. Somewhere in his novel of Paris life, "The Ambassadors," Henry James grows positively lyrical about those yellow books, comparing them with a mass of fresh fruit, ripe and enticing. You feel they are coloured by the sheer presence of vitamines. Who could bear to hide such treasures in a cupboard? Besides, the lettering on their backs is discreet; their delicate personality it is that beckons. And Henry James was not alone in feeling that enticement.

When Books Take Charge.

So far I have discussed people who know how to keep books in their place. Is the reverse picture too gloomy to be borne? Shall I tell you what a home is like when books take control, hold the helm, steer the car, wield the lash, and sa forth? Well, this is the way it goes. You move into a new house, even temporarily. You. find there is only one bookshelf, and you construct another, which should be more than enough, as you will not spend more than a few months here. In three months' time, what has happened? Well, the few books you had when you came are still there, but unnoticeable, among the hundred or so more that have accumulated. "Like breeds like"; is that it? Some of the new ones are real acquisitions; you will never part with them. Others are horrible accidents that have occurred to you because So-and-so wanted to try to convince you of double-tax, or auto-ventriloquism, or how to make wine from papaws. What does one do with books like this? That, I admit, is a real problem. One can't take them up and write on the flyleaf, "To Mary, with love," because then Mary will read the book as from you, and will imbibe its doctrine as yours and tell her friends you're a double-taxer who lives on papaw wine. The thing to do with these books in the end, I suppose, is to dump them very anonymously somewhere. Meanwhile, they help to crowd our real books off the two small shelves. Suddenly some one wants to look up something in the small Shelley that is always being submerged by heavier books: small Shelley lurks darkling. Every consultation of him is a crisis:  

   Lest storms should overset the leaning pile
   Deciduous, or its own unbalanced weight.

Cowper's haystack knew all about our book problems. Meanwhile, by facing those dreadful risks of collapse and of flooding, we have at least a small Shelley at hand, and can read aloud a chapter of James Stephens' "Crook of Gold" when "the world is too much with us." We have some poems and novels that their writers have sent us, and that no one can be allowed to borrow. We have above all the sense of abundant life, the overflowing life of the mind, that the visible presence of books can really give. I admit that it is a disturbing presence, but a seed, in the ground is also disturbing when it insists on germinating. After all, some one else must put the case for the swept and garnished room, devoid of books. I cannot put it fairly, for I am too willing that books should have it all their own way.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 20 August 1927

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 25, 2012 8:42 AM.

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