Letters on Literature, by Andrew Lang

To a Young American Book-Hunter

To Philip Dodsworth, Esq., New York.

Dear Dodsworth — Let me congratulate you on having joined the army of book-hunters. “Everywhere have I sought peace and found it nowhere,” says the blessed Thomas a Kempis, “save in a corner with a book.” Whether that good monk wrote the “De Imitatione Christi” or not, one always likes him for his love of books. Perhaps he was the only book-hunter that ever wrought a miracle. “Other signs and miracles which he was wont to tell as having happened at the prayer of an unnamed person, are believed to have been granted to his own, such as the sudden reappearance of a lost book in his cell.” Ah, if Faith, that moveth mountains, could only bring back the books we have lost, the books that have been borrowed from us! But we are a faithless generation.

From a collector so much older and better experienced in misfortune than yourself, you ask for some advice on the sport of book-hunting. Well, I will give it; but you will not take it. No; you will hunt wild, like young pointers before they are properly broken.

Let me suppose that you are “to middle fortune born,” and that you cannot stroll into the great book-marts and give your orders freely for all that is rich and rare. You are obliged to wait and watch an opportunity, to practise that maxim of the Stoic’s, “Endure and abstain.” Then abstain from rushing at every volume, however out of the line of your literary interests, which seems to be a bargain. Probably it is not even a bargain; it can seldom be cheap to you, if you do not need it, and do not mean to read it.

Not that any collector reads all his books. I may have, and indeed do possess, an Aldine Homer and Caliergus his Theocritus; but I prefer to study the authors in a cheap German edition. The old editions we buy mainly for their beauty, and the sentiment of their antiquity and their associations.

But I don’t take my own advice. The shelves are crowded with books quite out of my line — a whole small library of tomes on the pastime of curling, and I don’t curl; and “God’s Revenge against Murther,” though (so far) I am not an assassin. Probably it was for love of Sir Walter Scott, and his mention of this truculent treatise, that I purchased it. The full title of it is “The Triumphs of God’s Revenge against the Crying and Execrable Sinne of (willful and premeditated) Murther.” Or rather there is nearly a column more of title, which I spare you. But the pictures are so bad as to be nearly worth the price. Do not waste your money, like your foolish adviser, on books like that, or on “Les Sept Visions de Don Francisco de Quevedo,” published at Cologne, in 1682.

Why in the world did I purchase this, with the title-page showing Quevedo asleep, and all his seven visions floating round him in little circles like soap-bubbles? Probably because the book was published by Clement Malassis, and perhaps he was a forefather of that whimsical Frenchman, Poulet Malassis, who published for Banville, and Baudelaire, and Charles Asselineau. It was a bad reason. More likely the mere cheapness attracted me.

Curiosity, not cheapness, assuredly, betrayed me into another purchase. If I want to read “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” of course I read it in John Bunyan’s good English. Then why must I ruin myself to acquire “Voyage d’un Chrestien vers l’Eternite. Ecrit en Anglois, par Monsieur Bunjan, F.M., en Bedtfort, et nouvellement traduit en Francois. Avec Figures. A Amsterdam, chez Jean Boekholt Libraire pres de la Bourse, 1685”? I suppose this is the oldest French version of the famed allegory. Do you know an older? Bunyan was still living and, indeed, had just published the second part of the book, about Christian’s wife and children, and the deplorable young woman whose name was Dull.

As the little volume, the Elzevir size, is bound in blue morocco, by Cuzin, I hope it is not wholly a foolish bargain; but what do I want, after all, with a French “Pilgrim’s Progress”? These are the errors a man is always making who does not collect books with system, with a conscience and an aim.

Do have a specially. Make a collection of works on few subjects, well chosen. And what subjects shall they be? That depends on taste. Probably it is well to avoid the latest fashion. For example, the illustrated French books of the eighteenth century are, at this moment, en hausse. There is a “boom” in them. Fifty years ago Brunet, the author of the great “Manuel,” sneered at them. But, in his, “Library Companion,” Dr. Dibdin, admitted their merit. The illustrations by Gravelot, Moreau, Marillier, and the rest, are certainly delicate, graceful, full of character, stamped with style. But only the proofs before letters are very much valued, and for these wild prices are given by competitive millionaires. You cannot compete with them.

It is better wholly to turn the back on these books and on any others at the height of the fashion, unless you meet them for fourpence on a stall. Even then should a gentleman take advantage of a poor bookseller’s ignorance? I don’t know. I never fell into the temptation, because I never was tempted. Bargains, real bargains, are so rare that you may hunt for a lifetime and never meet one.

The best plan for a man who has to see that his collection is worth what it cost him, is probably to confine one’s self to a single line, say, in your case, first editions of new English, French, and American books that are likely to rise in value. I would try, were I you, to collect first editions of Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Poe, and Hawthorne.

As to Poe, you probably will never have a chance. Outside of the British Museum, where they have the “Tamerlane” of 1827, I have only seen one early example of Poe’s poems. It is “Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, by Edgar A. Poe. Baltimore: Hatch and Dunning, 1829, 8vo, pp. 71.” The book “came to Mr. Locker (Mr. Frederick Locker–Lampson), through Mr. R. H. Stoddard, the American poet.” So says Mr. Locker–Lampson’s Catalogue. He also has the New York edition of 1831.

These books are extraordinarily rare; you are more likely to find them in some collection of twopenny rubbish than to buy them in the regular market. Bryant’s “Poems” (Cambridge, 1821) must also be very rare, and Emerson’s of 1847, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s of 1836, and Longfellow’s “Voices of the Night,” 1839, and Mr. Lowell’s “A Year’s Life;” none of these can be common, and all are desirable, as are Mr. Whittier’s “Legends of New England” (1831), and “Poems” (1838).

Perhaps you may never be lucky enough to come across them cheap; no doubt they are greatly sought for by amateurs. Indeed, all American books of a certain age or of a special interest are exorbitantly dear. Men like Mr. James Lenox used to keep the market up. One cannot get the Jesuit “Relations”— shabby little missionary reports from Canada, in dirty vellum.

Cartier, Perrot, Champlain, and the other early explorers’ books are beyond the means of a working student who needs them. May you come across them in a garret of a farmhouse, or in some dusty lane of the city. Why are they not reprinted, as Mr. Arber has reprinted “Captain John Smith’s Voyages, and Reports on Virginia”? The very reprints, when they have been made, are rare and hard to come by.

There are certain modern books, new books, that “go up” rapidly in value and interest. Mr. Swinburne’s “Atalanta” of 1865, the quarto in white cloth, is valued at twenty dollars. Twenty years ago one dollar would have purchased it. Mr. Austin Dobson’s “Proverbs in Porcelain” is also in demand among the curious. Nay, even I may say about the first edition of “Ballades in Blue China” (1880), as Gibbon said of his “Essay on the Study of Literature:” “The primitive value of half a crown has risen to the fanciful price of a guinea or thirty shillings,” or even more. I wish I had a copy myself, for old sake’s sake.

Certain modern books, “on large paper,” are safe investments. The “Badminton Library,” an English series of books on sport, is at a huge premium already, when on “large paper.” But one should never buy the book unless, as in the case of Dr. John Hill Burton’s “Book–Hunter” (first edition), it is not only on large paper, and not only rare (twenty-five copies), but also readable and interesting. 7 A collector should have the taste to see when a new book is in itself valuable and charming, and when its author is likely to succeed, so that his early attempts (as in the case of Mr. Matthew Arnold, Lord Tennyson, and a few others of the moderns) are certain to become things of curious interest.

You can hardly ever get a novel of Jane Austen’s in the first edition. She is rarer than Fielding or Smollett. Some day it may be the same in Miss Broughton’s case. Cling to the fair and witty Jane, if you get a chance. Beware of illustrated modern books in which “processes” are employed. Amateurs will never really value mechanical reproductions, which can be copied to any extent. The old French copper-plate engravings and the best English mezzo-tints are so valuable because good impressions are necessarily so rare.

One more piece of advice. Never (or “hardly ever”) buy an imperfect book. It is a constant source of regret, an eyesore. Here have I Lovelace’s “Lucasta,” 1649, without the engraving. It is deplorable, but I never had a chance of another “Lucasta.” This is not a case of invenies aliam. However you fare, you will have the pleasure of Hope and the consolation of books quietem inveniendam in abditis recessibus et libellulis.

7 Edinburgh, 1862.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03