My library is a very personal hobby. I collect old books, preferably pre-1930. I started this occupation about ten years ago when I discovered that you can buy books which are hundreds of years old for £2 or £3. The reason for this is very simple, the way people value old books is really just about a form of consumerism. Real collectors want first editions, known names, famous authors and prime condition. These considerations overide anything to do with content really. There may be people who collect for content but then the majority are doing it as a ‘theme’ for their collection. The books they collect will be valuable because other collectors create a market which drives price. This is not to say the books these people collect are not fantastic things in their own right, it is that they have taken on the role of a collectable commodity and in many cases represent an investment for financial gain.
The intention behind my own collection is of a completely different nature. My old books are worn, some in a state of disrepair, they are mostly, but not exclusively, works which are by little known or even historically anonymous people or they are reference books or popular works. If I did not buy these books then their destination would probably be a skip to take them to a waste dump. People generally are not interested in them, they don’t want to know and they certainly do not want to buy them. In my own eye though, these are absolute treasures, to me they are priceless. What I mean by that is that there is no amount of money anyone could offer me to buy these books, they have no price for sale. These books are companions on my journey through life and I look on my ‘ownership’ of them as a guardianship.
There is an aspect about this guardianship which has a deeply personal nature to it. A lot of the books I have are Victorian and many are people writing, in one form or another, about their lives. In these pages are not just biographies but details of the way people lived their lives. Sociologically and historically, these are rich primary and secondary sources. Opening their pages you can hear the voice of someone real, someone who is speaking from their life to your ears.
A fine example is the book called ‘The Lecture’ by Artemis Ward. I consider this to be an absolute gem. Written around 1860, 158 years ago, this text is a public performance given by Mr Ward about his travels across the American Plains. In his illuminated talk, using a magic lantern to project images, he described to an enraptured audience in The Egyptian Rooms in Regent Street, tales of encounters with native Americans on a journey to visit the Mormons in Utah.
The sheer magic of this book is that, as far as I understand it, what we have is the grandfather of stand up comedy performing his ‘act’ to appreciative audiences. ‘The Lecture’ is a spoof and Artemis Ward the alter ego of a man who left journalism to perform comedy. He travelled the United States and Europe to sell out crowds in the thousands. The book itself is cleverly written because it has three sizes of font; large, standard and small. The reason for this is that the text is effectively this man’s script and the size of text denotes the ‘size’ of his voice in the performance; large (shout), standard (talking) and small (asides in whispers). In reading this text and understanding its layout you are really hearing a performance which was a popular comedy over 150 years ago. This is like watching an old Marx Brothers movie or an ancient silent film, this book contains within it not just the voice of a comedian but an understanding of what people found funny in those long past days. In my reading I found myself laughing at some of his descriptions of the people he encountered and once he is amongst the Mormons than you really have to hold your sides!
If you take a walk in any Victorian cemetry you will be presented with rows of gravestones. Many of these memorials to a life long gone have had their texts erased by wind and rain. Other than the pale stones standing as silent testimony to unknown lives, there is rarely anything to speak about the person or persons who lie within the shadows of their grave. Graveyards erode the memory of human beings who once ate and slept and breathed their way through very oridinary lives. Only amongst the wealthy and other high status individuals do we find anything remotely related to memory for graves and obituaries are more the substance of myth than fact.
In our own lives it is rare for us to know much more than scraps of information about our great grandparents. The lives beyond them are mostly lost to us. Memory is not impermable, solid or durable, it is a delicate moment we hold on to for our own sake, the cradle of our identity which we rock gently lest we spill its vulnerable child. Where can we look for memory that is more durable?
In my libarary there are many voices which still possess the power to speak. Time is no prisoner to them whilst I take guardianship of their words. When I look at my books on their shelves, I sense the lives I am saving for our knowing today. These shelves are not a mausoleaum but a conversation with real human beings who, though unseen, have something of value to tell us. They too lived through the trials of life. They completed their challenge of being human and facing the final gate through which we all must pass. I cannot consign these voices to the fire of a furnace of ignorance, I have to save them in the hope that one day others will come to see their value. A value estimated not in the temporary satisfaction of money but in the appreciation of common humanity.
Public Characters of 1803 - 1804Printed for Richard PhillipsNo 71, St. Pauls Church Yard1804Reference: PSL/1804/0003b
The Beauties of England and Wales;or,Original Deliniations, Topographical,Historical, and Descriptive, of Each Countyby Edward Wedlake Brayley.Volume Viii 1808PSL/1808/0002b
Muirheads London and its environsthird impression August 191830 maps and plansLondon: Macmillan & Co. Ltd. St. Martins Street, W.C.PSL/1918/0001b