“The urge to buy books is a chronic disease, which is cured only by bodily annihilation…I do not claim to have read all or even most of the books I own. Some I read many years after purchase, others never. But I have looked into all of them. I know what they contain. All are for potential use, as well as pleasure. Many are for reference or checking, and it is gratifying how often I refer to them.
(Paul Johnson, “The Art of Writing a Column” [To Hell With Picasso and Other Essays])
Whilst not the Dr Johnson of lexographical fame, the writer, critic and essayist Paul Johnson dons a medical practitioner’s hat to neatly diagnose an ailment that afflicts a great number of us and which, if infected early enough, can lead to a lifetime of bibliographas acquirus. I admit to having contracted this disease in my teens and can testify to its chronic tendencies. I am, quite literally, incapable of passing any form of establishment that sells books without popping in to scan the shelves. Just a quick browse I tell myself. A cursory glance. The merest glimpse of their stock. I know I’m kidding myself. Like the dipsomaniac who tells himself he’s just nipping into the pub to use their loo. I will inevitably emerge with a carrier bag full of assorted hardbacks and paperbacks just as sure as he will stumble out three sheets to the wind. Both of us having sated our respective desires
Sharing Dr P Johnson’s malady means that in any given room in my house I am surrounded by books. Many of them have not yet been read but were bought for curiosity, reference or simply because they happened to have caught my eye and appeared interesting. Such books are never a wasted purchase as, given the appropriate moment, they will be retrieved from their allotted place, dusted down and opened to pour forth their wisdom.
One such moment occurred recently when I was discussing visiting the various upcoming art exhibitions in London. My two companions instantly launched into a scathing attack upon paintings, galleries and, in particular, the scourge that is modern and contemporary art. That meretricious masquerade of abstract conceptual posturing. What John Ruskin, with reference to James McNeill Whistler, described as ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. The language that accompanied this diatribe was not so much colourful as eye-wateringly fluorescent. “Or are we wrong?” they both chorused. “We are happy to stand correct, if you can suggest anything”.
I mentally scanned the bookshelves in my house trying to think what could remedy this startling streak of philistinism. A weighty contemporary art tome? No, that would no doubt be flung at my head the moment my back was turned. No, this needed to be an impassioned plea from a proselytiser of the arts, one who appreciated the need for us spread the word of culture. And then I remembered it. A forthright yet engaging series of essays written by E. M. Forster highlighting the importance and virtues of the arts. Hooray for his second volume of collected essays, broadcasts and articles entitled “Two Cheers for Democracy”.
I remembered their titles and instinctively knew that Forster would strike the appropriate conversational as well as enlightening note: “Art for Art’s Sake”, “Does Culture Matter” and “Not Looking at Pictures” were just some of the ones that came to mind. When identifying the problem of convincing those sceptical of culture, he noted [in 1940] how it had changed from a genial indifference, the usual “just ‘not my sort’” type comments into something more worrying. Forster notes “But now the good-humour is vanishing, the guffaw is organised into a sneer, and the typical reaction is “How dare these so-called art-chaps do it? I’ll give them something to do.”’
Having, rather contentedly, retrieved the book, adding an extra cheer whilst doing so, I began flicking through some of the other essays and articles when unexpectedly I came across two articles on libraries that I had forgotten were in the volume.
The first, “In My Library”, is personal tour of his own collection of books which he invites us to “politely term the library” and which “so far as I have created it, is rather a muddle”. Muddle or not, here we can see someone who, like us disease-ridden folk, enjoy the pleasures of being surrounded by books:
“Only at night, when the curtains are drawn and the fire flickers, and the lights are turned, do they come into their own and attain a collective dignity. It is very pleasant to sit with them in the firelight for a couple of minutes, not reading, not even thinking, but aware that they, with their accumulated wisdom and charm are waiting to be used, and that my library, in its tiny imperfect way, is a successor to the great private libraries of the past”
One imagines the reference is to the innumerable private libraries in the stately homes of England. To a large extent is probably is. However, there is one very different private library that Forster is also alluding to and which provides the subject of the essay that follows entitled “The London Library”.
You may say that there are any number of libraries in London ranging from local borough and municipal libraries to the libraries attached to the London Universities or those sequestered within the Inns of Court for the benefit of legal practitioners and students. That is undoubtedly true, but this one is unique and as a result richly deserves the accolade of the definite article.
So what is the London Library? It is a private subscription library founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle whose vision was of an institution which would allow subscribers to enjoy the riches of a national library in their own homes. As he said in a speech to promote the venture [considered to be his only speech]:
“The founding of a Library is one of the greatest things we can do with regard to results. It is one of the quietest of things; but there is nothing I know of at bottom more important. Everyone able to read a good book becomes a wiser man. He becomes a similar centre of light and order, and just insight into the things around him. A collection of good books contains all the nobleness and wisdom of the world before us.”
Many of the great and the good were of a similar mind for among his supporters were The Earl of Clarendon, the enlightened early-Victorian politician and the Library’s first president, William Makepeace Thackeray was its first auditor; William Gladstone and Sir Edward Bunbury were on the first committee and early members included Charles Dickens and George Eliot.
Whilst it is located amongst the smart gentleman’s clubs in the St James’s district of London, tucked away in the corner of St James’s Square, there is no sense of sniffiness, snobbery or exclusivity. It is open to all who wish to join with no need “to be proposed by at least seven members”, “to have had one’s great-grandfather on the Wine Committee”, “to have demonstrated prowess on the Fives Court at Eton” or any guff like that. The only requirement, in addition to paying the membership fee, is to provide the name of an independent referee to confirm your name and address if requested.
What you receive in exchange is access to a bibliophile’s paradise. The building is beautiful in itself but its contents, set over six floors, and numbering over one million books, some dating back to the sixteenth century are the beating heart and soul of the library. Remarkably, all but the most rare and delicate books are available on open shelving to browse. Approximately 8,000 new books are added every year and the Library maintains current subscriptions to around 850 periodicals. Arranged according to theme, one can easily while away countless hours at a time just wandering among the rows and rows of books and almost all available to borrow.
I can say from my own experience that membership to no other club, body or organisation has given me as much pleasure as the London Library. I was initially drawn to it because of the difficulty I had in finding a copy of E.W Hornung’s “A Thief In The Night”, the sequel to “The Amateur Cracksman” which introduced us to the dishonest exploits of A. J. Raffles. However, once I was a member, whenever I came across a reference to a book, no matter how obscure, one could be fairly sure that somewhere along the shelves of the London Library there would be a copy awaiting its own ‘appropriate moment’.
E.M. Forster wrote his article celebrating the centenary of the London Library when Britain was still in the ravages of war against Nazi Germany. In the midst of falling bombs and debris of conflict, Forster admirably captures its spirit and place in the cultural and literary consciousness of the nation:
“All around it are the signs of the progress of science and the retrogression of man. Buildings are in heaps, the earth is in holes. Safe still among the reefs of rubbish, it seems to be something more than a collection of books. It is a symbol of civilisation. It is a reminder of sanity and a promise of sanity to come.”
Who among us could not do with a little more sanity?