On Reading, Writing And Living With Books

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 Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros – our Head of Bibliographic Services – continues our series of blogs looking at the works that we have featured in The London Library’s  Found on The Shelves series, published with Pushkin Press to coincide with our 175th anniversary. Here she looks at the essays and letters that can be found in one of Found on the Shelves most popular works – On Reading, Writing and Living with Books.

What better way to celebrate 175 years of life at The London Library than to bring together a selection of texts written by Library members and who better to select these than the Librarian herself, Inez Lynn? The pieces Inez has chosen for On Reading, Writing and Living with Books are by five authors who need no introduction. They were all members of the Library and they represent the thousands of writers and readers whose work and lives have been enriched through their association with The London Library since its foundation in 1841. As the Library’s founder, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), put it when he was trying to get his scheme off the ground:

“A good book is the purest essence of the human soul. …The good of a book is not the facts that can be got out of it, but the kind of resonance that it awakes in our own minds. A book may strike out a thousand things, may make us know a thousand things which it does not know itself. … 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 that I know of at bottom more important. Everyone able to read a good book becomes a wiser man.”

The selection begins with How Should One Read a Book? by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), whose connection with The London Library began in childhood. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a critic and scholar, closely involved with the Library and who served as a very active and committed President from 1892 until his death. Virginia joined the Library in her own right at the age of 22 on February 26 1904, just 4 days after her father’s death, paying £40 for life membership and declaring “Spinster” as her “Occupation or Position” although her correspondence reveals that she used the Library before then and lived in horror of losing one of its books.

The marvellous essay chosen for our little book started life as a paper the author read to pupils at a private girls’ school at Hayes Court in Kent in 1926 and its title has a note of interrogation because she admits straight away that

“The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.”

She later adds that

“To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries.”

On that basis she agrees to give the reader, or listener, a few ideas and suggestions as long as they “will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.”  Independence is certainly the most important quality The London Library possesses!

Two letters by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) on writing follow the essay on reading. Dickens is listed among the founder members of The London Library and its influence on him was considerable, not least in the writing of A Tale of Two Cities. The story goes that Dickens asked Thomas Carlyle for advice as to what he should read on the French Revolution (being a great admirer of Carlyle’s The French Revolution) and Carlyle sent round to him two cartloads of books on the topic from the Library’s collections. The letters in our volume date from the 1850s and are to two fellow writers, his friend Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), and a new and mysterious author who called herself George Eliot (1819-1880). The letters are full of encouragement, advice and praise and he displays great sagacity when he writes to George Eliot:

“I have observed what seem to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.”

George Eliot, who was so moved by this letter that she wished she could remove “the iron mask of my incognito” in order to tell Dickens how much she appreciated his words, read so widely and extensively that her membership of The London Library was something of a necessity. Her essay, Authorship, completes the section on writing. Unlike Virginia Woolf, who offered only gentle advice, George Eliot is unequivocal in her declaration that writers have an obligation to produce works of the best quality that will benefit others. She states that a writer of merely entertaining and profitable works

“is on a level with the manufacturer who gets rich by fancy-wares coloured with arsenic green. He really cares for nothing but his income. He carries on authorship on the principle of the gin-palace. And bad literature of the sort called amusing is spiritual gin.”

The poet, critic and journalist Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) was a friend of Carlyle and Dickens,  as well as other early members of The London Library such as Thackeray and Harriet Martineau. He joined the Library himself in 1845 becoming the 877th person to do so. In his essay, My Books (also published under the title Among My Books) he examines the book from every angle. He discusses the book as an object and reflects on its content and power:

“To a shape like this, so small yet so comprehensive, so slight yet so lasting, so insignificant yet so venerable, turns the mighty activity of Homer, and so turning, is enabled to live and warm us for ever.”

But he also shares his views on the atmospheres of different kinds of libraries, the ideal bookcases and furniture, his habits when it comes to buying and borrowing books, and the changing character of literature through the ages. The essay is in essence a love letter to the most important objects in his life:

“I entrench myself in my books equally against sorrow and the weather.”

In a similar way, The London Library, by E.M. Forster (1879-1970) is a love letter to an institution he cherished. Forster joined the Library in 1904 as a life member, served on the Committee from 1933 to 1948 and was Vice-President from 1961 until his death. At a time of financial crisis, he donated his draft material and manuscript of A Passage to India to the Library for its fund-raising auction at Christie’s on 22 June 1960 where it made £6,500 – then a record price for a manuscript by a living writer. He wrote the last essay in our selection to mark the Library’s centenary in 1941 as enemy bombs were falling on London during the “imbecile storm” that was the Second World War:

“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.”

The Library was under an immediate threat then and was indeed hit by a bomb in 1944.

Libraries are under a different, but still very serious, kind of threat now and Forster’s words are just as relevant today as they were 75 years ago:

“Knowledge will perish if we do not stand up for it, and testify. It is never safe, never harvested. It has to be protected not only against the gangster but against a much more charming and seductive foe: the crowd. ‘I know what I like and I know what I want,’ says the crowd, ‘and I don’t want all these shelves and shelves of books. Scrap them.’”

On reading cover

Published with Pushkin Press: fascinating thoughts on books and writing from 5 great authors

Woolf montage

Virginia Woolf explores the question: How Should One Read a Book?

Dickens montags

We look at Dickens’ letters to Wilkie Collins and George Eliot

George Eliot essays montags

George Eliot’s Essays includes an essay on “Authorship”

Leigh Hunt

Poet, critic and journalist Leigh Hunt writes a love letter on books

EM Forster montage

And EM Forster writes a love letter on The London Library in his essay from 1939