13 December 2018

Books Change Like Friends

Andrew Lang, The Library (London: Macmillan & Co., 1892), pp. 15-16:
Selling books is nearly as bad as losing friends, than which life has no worse sorrow. A book is a friend whose face is constantly changing. If you read it when you are recovering from an illness, and return to it years after, it is changed surely, with the change in yourself. As a man’s tastes and opinions are developed his books put on a different aspect. He hardly knows the “Poems and Ballads” he used to declaim,and cannot recover the enigmatic charm of “Sordello.” Books change like friends, like ourselves, like everything; but they are most piquant in the contrasts they provoke, when the friend who gave them and wrote them is a success, though we laughed at him ; a failure, though we believed in him ; altered in any case, and estranged from his old self and old days. The vanished past returns when we look at the pages.

The vicissitudes of years are printed and packed in a thin octavo, and the shivering ghosts of desire and hope return to their forbidden home in the heart and fancy. It is as well to have the power of recalling them always at hand, and to be able to take a comprehensive glance at the emotions which were so powerful and full of life, and now are more faded and of less account than the memory of the dreams of childhood. It is because our books are friends that do change, and remind us of change, that we should keep them with us, even at a little inconvenience, and not turn them adrift in the world to find a dusty asylum in cheap bookstalls. We are a part of all that we have read, to parody the saying of Mr. Tennyson’s Ulysses, and we owe some respect, and house-room at least, to the early acquaintances who have begun to bore us, and remind us of the vanity of ambition and the weakness of human purpose. Old school and college books even have a reproachful and salutary power of whispering how much a man knew, and at the cost of how much trouble, that he has absolutely forgotten, and is neither the better nor the worse for it. It will be the same in the case of the books he is eager about now; though, to be sure, he will read with less care, and forget with an ease and readiness only to be acquired by practice.
Joseph Swain's frontispiece to The Library