12 July 2013

Bibliothecam Vendat

Charles Nodier (1780-1844), in an essay written when Guilbert de Pixérécourt (1773-1844) sold off his library, from the Bulletin du Bibliophile, No. IX, Vol. III (October, 1834), quoted in a footnote to Souvenirs de la révolution et de l'empire, Vol. I (Paris: Charpentier, 1864), pp. 362-363. My translation:
When Joseph Scaliger wanted to sum up the harshest torments a literary man could face, he said: Lexicon contextat [Let him put together a dictionary]. If he had wanted to give an idea of the most extreme sorrow, he probably would have said: Bibliothecam vendat [Let him sell his library]... There is always something infinitely sad about the decision of a literary man to sell his books. I do not say this applies to vulgar types who care little for books and for literary people, but to intelligent and sensitive souls. One must not speak harshly of one's contemporaries: I still know three or four such men. Books are much like friends who stood close by in happier days, but whom one must watch disappear in times of adversity. Philosophy teaches us that this is not a new usage, and experience teaches us that it is not rare.
However, it would not be so difficult to lose one's library if one had the consolation of placing the whole of it into the careful protection of an enlightened and attentive owner, someone who would know how to enjoy it, and who would take pleasure in allowing others to do the same. Knowing this, one would feel something like the bitter-sweet sadness of a father who can never kiss his dear child again, but who knows that he has been placed in a good home. Unfortunately, things do not work this way. These books, these fraternal and almost twinned treasures which glow together in their combined harmony, will scatter like the last exiled members of an illustrious race, their shameful fate decided at the auction block: Disjectae membra Bibliothecae [The scattered fragments of a library]. Good taste will take away a few of them, ostentation will have many more, and ignorance will have the rest. We no longer live in an age where wealthy men pride themselves on an elegant and well-chosen collection of books. The library of a rich man in the 19th century consists of the Stock Market Journal and the Almanac of Commerce, dressed up in cheap cardboard bindings that I wouldn't bestow upon them them.
At one time, opulence that had been acquired through honest but more or less mechanical industry liked to compensate for its origins by supporting the arts and letters... Money served to make life more beautiful, and did itself credit with this noble custom. "We have enough money," said Louis XI's greedy minister Coytier. "What we need now is honour." Today one can never have enough money; and the thing that people who have a lot of money require is more money. As a result there will no longer be a decent amateur library in France twenty years from now unless a few zealous and obstinate men put one together at the cost of their everyday comforts — until the fatal day dawns when it is handed over to an auctioneer in order to prevent it from being seized by the bailiff.