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Old Books, Distant Voices

‘Comfort Found in Good Old Books’ is a phrase that struck a chord with me. It’s the title of a small, handsome book, published in 1911 and long out of print, that I found in a used-book store in Columbus. Written by George Hamlin Fitch, a reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle, the book is a short introduction to some of the classic works that Fitch considered essential for any serious reader, ‘the best old books in the world,’ as he calls them. It’s an interesting read as a whole, but what really caught my attention was the deeply personal introduction, in which Fitch explains how he was driven to write the book in response to the unexpected death of his beloved son. 

“These short essays on the best old books in the world were inspired by the sudden death of an only son, without whom I had not thought life worth living. To tide me over the first weeks of bitter grief I plunged into this work of reviewing the great books from the bible to the works of the eighteenth century writers. The suggestion came from many readers who were impressed by the fact that in the darkest hour of sorrow my only comfort came from the habit of reading …”

The book’s opening essay was written just days after the event, and the profound sorrow and desperate grief of the bereaved father is still raw to the touch.

“My relations with my son Harold were not those of the stern parent and the timid son … rather it was the relation of elder brother and younger brother. Hence, when only ten days ago this close and tender association of many years was broken by death - swift and wholly unexpected, as a bolt from cloudless skies - it seemed to me as if the keystone of the arch of my life had fallen and everything lay heaped in ugly ruin.

Among men of New England strain like myself, it is easy to labor long hours, to endure nervous strain, to sacrifice comfort and ease for the sake of their dear ones; but men of Puritan strain, with natures as hard as the flinty granite of their hillsides, cannot tell their loved ones how dear they are to them, until death lays his grim hand upon the shoulder of the beloved one and closes his ears forever to the words of passionate love that now come pouring in a flood from our trembling lips.”

I found the sadness of the father, dead himself for almost a century, incredibly moving and did not hesitate to part with a few dollars to take this little book home with me.

This feeling of close connection with characters of the past, fictional or otherwise, is one of the great pleasures of time spent with ‘good old books.’ It’s rather like a friendly hand reaching out to you across the years from inside the pages, reminding us that those who came before us experienced emotions not that much different from ourselves.

One of Fitch’s good old books is Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the celebrated eighteenth-century biography of the famous London writer and lexicographer  - a fame, it should be said, that is in no small measure due to Boswell’s recording of his life, which as Fitch says “immortalized and made [him] as real to us today as though he actually lived and worked and browbeat his associates in our own time.” 

I picked up an old two-volume edition of Boswell’s Johnson about 25 years ago in a creaky basement bookshop, knowing next-to-nothing about either Johnson or Boswell, or the eighteenth-century London they inhabited. I found it such a compelling read that I completed both volumes in a single weekend. Johnson’s reputation as one of history’s great wits rests almost completely on the many snippets of conversation recorded faithfully by Boswell: they form a treasure-trove of pithy aphorisms and barbed ripostes that let us feel as if we are in the same tavern or coffee-house as the raucous participants.

Going back another hundred years into London’s past, you cannot hope for a better first-hand guide than Samuel Pepys. Pepys was a Member of Parliament and naval administrator, and in the 1660s he kept a personal diary that saw him witness many great events of the day. He was present for the Great Plague that swept through a terrified London from 1665 into 1666, as well as the Great Fire of London that same year. As well as major events such as these, the diary also details many fascinating aspects of day-to-day big city life in the seventeenth century.

Pepys Diary was written in his own invented shorthand and was not intended to be published in his day; however, its inclusion and cataloging in his personal library along with a guide to his personal shorthand demonstrate a wish to preserve his experiences for future generations. Nevertheless, the diary remained unpublished and mostly untranslated for over 150 years after Pepys’ death in 1703.

The following entry for Saturday October 13, 1660 sees Pepys witness a public execution, then return home to get into a petty domestic squabble with his wife. It paints a grim picture, to be sure, albeit one told with disconcerting cheerfulness; and it’s also a perfect example of how major events sit side-by-side in the diary with seemingly insignificant yet fascinating details.

“To my Lord’s in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now had judged him; and that his wife do expect his coming again.

 

Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross. From thence to my Lord’s, and took Captain Cuttance and Mr. Sheply to the Sun Tavern, and did give them some oysters. After that I went by water home, where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.

 

Within all the afternoon setting up shelves in my study. At night to bed.”



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