England – Of Books As Travelling Companions

I ONCE had a dream of editing a little library of books for the scholar gipsy, such books, in such miniature yet comfortable format, as he would care, and be able, to carry with him in a way-faring knapsack. Nothing has ever been so exquisite as the format of that little unborn library. If you can imagine exactly the kind of book that would go with a meal of bread and honey by the roadside, you will have some idea of the deliciousness of my edition, say, of Spenser’s Minor Poems. Well, I took the dream to a publisher, and, as he was a lover of beautiful books as well as a publisher, he thought it a charming little dream, and longed to set paper-makers and printers and binders at work upon its embodiment immediately. There was but one difficulty :

Who, then, would buy ? ” In his shop he had so many dreams to sell. Prudence counselled that he should add no more for the present. ” For,” he said, ” it is a melancholy fact that your tourist, particularly your cyclist, on whom we should chiefly rely, never reads anything — either at home or abroad. Your bookish pedestrian is extinct, or only survives in numbers too small to carry off even the most limited edition.”

Personally, I think the publisher was too pessimistic, though I confess that two or three booksellers I likewise consulted confirmed his view. One of these, some-thing of a philosopher, with an eye for the causes of things, suggested a possible reason. ” It comes a good deal,” he said, “of some of you literary men, so to say, fouling your own nests. It was Stevenson who began it with his talk of longing for a more manly way of life — as if he could have been happy for five minutes in a world without words. Then Mr. Lang, perhaps the most literary temperament that ever lived, would have you believe that to write a good book is nothing compared with playing a good game of golf. And, of course, all the imitative youngsters follow suit. It is a pose, a fashion, like any other, and it will pass ; but, mean-while, it is not very good for the book trade.”

There is a great deal in what the book-seller said. At the moment, books are at considerably more than a threepence in the shilling discount. Only battle-axes are at a premium. ” Life is more than literature,” like many another good phrase gone wrong, has run amok in certain brains ; and we have the strange spectacle of a highly organised civilisation aping the barbarism from which it started.

Life” ? Yes ! But it seems rather the taking of life that is meant ; and if life is more than literature, how much more is it than mere golf and cricket, or even soldiering and sailoring? No one would deny that the “crowded hour of glorious life ” is worth all libraries, including even my Knapsack Library, though perhaps it depends a little on what you crowd into that hour ; and I fancy that Scott must have meant something more than, say, a good time with a Gatling gun.

Of course, a book is no more a substitute for life than a fiddle is a substitute for a beautiful woman ; but a book is more important than a cricket bat, and a fiddle than a sword. Similarly, had I to choose between the lark and Shelley, I would choose the bird with the bigger brain and the many meanings in his voice.

Fortunately, however, no such choice is necessary, and I confess that, as a mat-ter of personal practice, when the lark begins over the down, I shut my Shelley. One poet at a time. (On the other hand, I prefer Izaak Walton always to fishing.) I have mentioned Shelley advisedly, as representative of one of the two types into which true knapsack writers are divided. True knapsack literature either fulfils Walter Pater’s ideal of literature in approaching as near as possible to music, or it is like the smoking of a pipe. For us to take it away with us, a book must either be a song or a companion. Shelley is not much — or, perhaps, too much — of a companion ; but who shall match him at a song ? While for a thoroughly seasoned briar, who is there still that can compare with Charles Lamb ?

But, before I steal bits from my unwritten preface to “The Knapsack Library,” I realise that I have not quite finished the vindication of that library’s existence. Says your plain athletic man—there is no such sentimentalist — With all this glorious nature about you, this blue air, this green grass, these variously coloured cows ; this haughty exercise of prize muscles : what do you want with books ? Are not these enough ? Leave your bookishness in your London chambers, dear bookworm, and come eat with us the simple grass, like Nebuchadnezzar.”

” Bookishness ” ! I never talked of that. I am no bookworm ; nor, indeed, any book-feeding insect, unless it be a book-butterfly happy in the sun of literature. Nor did I for a moment mean that one should read while rowing, or cycling ; nor would I advise it during football, or cricket — though in the latter game it might, perhaps, be recommended to ” stonewallers,” as a pleasant way of passing the time — (it would be delightful to watch the effect of an Australian cricketer reading Marcus Aurelius at Lord’s).

In fact, however it may sound, my Knapsack Library is not necessarily in-tended for reading at all ; for, more than likely, it would be composed of the books one knows by heart. In book-love, as in any other form of love, there is a physical as well as a spiritual. I know, say, pretty well all I care to read of Mr. Swinburne by heart — the reader must excuse my thus bragging a prodigious memory—but was that any reason why I should n’t carry for the last fortnight in a cruel saddlebag “Faustine,” and”Felise,” and” Dolores,” and fifty more imperishable shapes of music ? It is not enough to say a poem you love, you must see, even touch it too. You want it with you in its bodily presence, that at evening you may place it on your dinner-table, as you would set a rose in a glass ; or that at morning it may be a lark at your bedside. You pack it among your clothes for lavender. There is, perhaps, hardly a purpose to which a real book may not be put — including reading.

Those who aver that nature —plus boating—is enough holiday, and that books are an effeminate intrusion, talk as though one expected them to take Mommsen in their travelling bags, and it is difficult to persuade them that our six-penny Ouida (and what a boon is that ! ) is not one of the Fathers in disguise. They know so little of the secondary, or rather primary, uses of books. All books to them are either guide-books, or lexicons, or—Whyte-Melville. They either teach you something dull, or miserably pass the time in the intervals of grouse-shooting. The only book they can see in a man’s hand on a holiday is a Bradshaw — a book one is always glad to lend to a friend. If you took a fiddle with you on your wanderings, or if you ran the terrible risk of taking a friend, they would understand easily enough. Well, they must be kind enough to try and comprehend that the book one takes on a journey is at once a fiddle, a friend, and a flower, and, last of all, a book. There is so little room in a knapsack that you are obliged to be thus epigrammatic in your baggage. Probably, if I were a great singer — a Correze, for I am just deep in love with a sixpenny ” Moths ” — I might not take a book with me ; for, apart from the psychological fact that great singers never read anything, I should be able to shape for myself my itinerant feelings in the presence of the various well-known phenomena of nature ; but, as I am neither a singer, nor even a ” word-painter,” I am driven to express myself at secondhand in all the irrelevant splendours of literature. Sometimes, as I coast down a hill, I chant out in a rapture of speed something may be from Mr. Lang’s “Theocritus.” As I dodge the affrighted occupants of a wagonette, I am probably exclaiming (genuinely, it will be observed, “from memory”): “Men call thee a gipsy, gracious Bombyca, and lean and sun-burnt; it is only I that call thee honey-pale. Swart is the violet, and swart the lettered hyacinth. Yet are these flowers chosen the first in garlands.”

Uphill, I have found this verse from a great living poet no less useful (again I quote from memory, but this time, I suspect, more accurately) :

“You with shelly horns, rams ! and promontory goats, You whose browsing beards dip in coldest dew Bulls, that walk the pastures in kingly-flashing coats ! Laurel, ivy, vine, wreathed for feasts not few ! You that build the shade-roof, and you that court the rays, You that leap besprinkling the rock stream-rent: He has been our fellow, the morning of our days ! Us he chose for housemates, and this way went. God ! of whom music And song and blood are pure The day is never darkened That had thee here obscure.”

This learned metre is not a fortunate choice for hill-riding, as you need almost as much breath for its properly decorative pauses as for mounting the hill. No doubt some sufficiently solemn man of science would be able to trace the exact correspondence between the metre and the hill. ” Tell me the poem you quoted,” he might say, “and I will tell you the length of the hill, the rate you mounted, and the point at which you decided to continue the poem—but not the hill.”

It will be observed, as I have endeavoured to point out, that these merely accidental, but on that account all the more typical, quotations have absolutely nothing to do with the matter in hand. That very fact vouches for their sincerity as quotations. Had they been à propos you might have suspected them. It is their very irrelevance which stamps them as jetting up from the deep rock-springs of human joy ; and they may serve as an illustration of the place of books on pilgrimage. I suspect that the inspired reading (or remembering—the same thing !) of books is much the same as the creation of them. Inspiration of any sort is seldom relevant to the moment. Be-cause you love one place with all your heart you must go to another to express it. The adjustment in these matters is something much subtler than external correspondence ; it is merely one key of emotion crying out for a companion in the same key. That companion may talk any language, or celebrate something quite different from that which excites the first emotion ; all that matters is to strike a similar note of true feeling.

Emotion of any sort does not crave the scientific expression of itself; the expression of the diametrically opposed emotion will serve its turn, if only the expression be spirited or splendid or tender as itself. Words caught in the passionate rhythm of any feeling are such wonderful things. Feeling of any kind seizes upon any instrument to express itself. Death will sometimes play the guitar and love the piano, while war of late has been satisfied with the banjo. In short, one reads or sings a favourite book en voyage, as better educated people hum “My girl is a high-born lady,” or some such way-ward lyrical expression of thankfulness for the gift of life. It is n’t bookishness ” at all ; it is only another form of concertina.

Joy often expresses itself in the saddest songs – in fact, it revels in them. We don’t write love-letters in the presence of the beloved. Similarly, we don’t necessarily read Richard Jefferies to Nature’s face. Nature would become self-conscious on the instant. She loves to be worshipped, but she hates to be inspected. Books on the country are best read in town — though Nature does not object to a gracefully-made quotation from the poets. They are never too personal.

And, of course, books on a journey do not only provide us with that verbal out-let for feeling which man, being unhappy as an enforced dumb animal, is always craving, but they do often enhance for us the charm of natural things. ” Nature,” indeed, is largely the creation of the poets. If the sea had not been already created, it is certain that Mr. Swinburne would have created it ; and no one can read Mr. Meredith’s nature-poetry without gaining a deepened intimacy with the earth and a keener zest in his intercourse with her. The beauty of the earth is the result of a long series of discoveries, and the discoveries are always being made. Indeed, the paradoxical position of those who would banish books from our holidays is seen when one realises that nothing is so saturated with literature as what we call ” Nature.”

But it is most, perhaps, for their sense of unexacting companionship that books are well taken on a journey. As the companionship of old friends is but little dependent on talk, and is far more an intercourse of the wireless telegraphy of silence, so with books. When we wish them to talk, they talk, just as long or short a time as we please ; but, for the most part, we take them along with us as imaginative presences, symbols of fair natures in whose atmosphere we delight to move.