Essays in librarianship and bibliography/Preface to Blades' "Enemies of Books"

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The precept "Love your Enemies" was never intended for the enemies of books, because the enemy of books is not an individual foe, but hostis humani generis. The value of books, as of other things, may be superstitiously overrated. We are accustomed to speak of them as if they were in themselves the wisdom, or the knowledge, or the genius, of which they are, in fact, only the receptacles. They are not the honey of the human hive, but only the treasure-cells in which it is stored, and the analogue of the bee is the author. But even in this restricted point of view, their function is so important that to destroy them is a crime of lèse-humanité; and it is not known that any one ever enunciated their destruction as a sound principle, unless it were the Caliph Omar. Even he, if the famous bon-mot attributed to him is genuine, was willing to spare one book; and could his life have been prolonged for a century or two, he would have discovered that in reprieving the Koran he had authorised the creation of a very considerable literature. The number of commentaries upon the Koran actually existing is not small; what would it have been had it been necessary to prove that all history, and geography, and astronomy, and everything else that man needed to know, was implicitly taught therein?

No such gigantic figure as the destroyer of the Alexandrian Library, brandishing, like the spectre of Fawdon, a blazing rafter, whose light streams down the centuries, occupies a post of honour in Mr. Blades' volume. In comparison, he may almost be likened to that poet who adjured, "Now, Muse, let's sing of rats," having previously struck out mice as below the dignity of the subject. The foes he enumerates are Fire, Water, Gas and Heat, Dust and Neglect, Ignorance, Book-worms, Other Vermin, Bookbinders, and Collectors. To these another might be added—Sinister Interests, which cannot be classified under the head of Ignorance, for they know well that the existence of books is incompatible with their own. It would be a curious subject of inquiry whether these interests, whose potency in mutilating valuable books and hindering their dissemination, sometimes until it has become too late for the world to profit by them, is unfortunately quite unquestionable, have ever succeeded in actually destroying any work of real importance to mankind. The number that have on this account never been written at all is no doubt enormous, but from the nature of the case cannot be ascertained, and the loss from this cause must be in every sense of the word inestimable. It would, however, probably be found that the book which once got written also managed to get printed, though sometimes with such secrecy that it might almost as well have remained in manuscript. Far more mischievous was the effect of pressure upon the books which did appear under the authority of a licenser, either emasculated by him or by the author. Whether the censors ever succeeded in suppressing a worthy book or not, it is pretty certain that they never succeeded in suppressing a pernicious one.

Such speculations would have been alien to the pacific and debonair spirit of Mr. Blades—a man devoid of gall, and ill-equipped for thornier paths of controversy than the definition of a folio or the date of a Caxton. In these he was formidable, not merely from his natural ability, but from his practical acquaintance with the mysteries of printing, an accomplishment rarely possessed by bibliographers. He was able to deal, and willing to receive, hard blows; but his gentle spirit doubtless rejoiced to find in the "Enemies of Books," as he conceived and treated the theme, a subject on which all the world thought as he did. No one, even in this age of rehabilitations, is likely to constitute himself the apologist of mice and book-worms. If a criticism were ventured on Mr. Blades' method, it might be whether, with the exception of these zoological enmities, the various forms of hostility of which he treats should not be grouped under a single head that of Ignorance. Ignorance misleads the peccant bookbinder, so sternly rebuked by Mr. Blades; ignorance (when it is not hard necessity) exposes books to the decomposing effects of gas; ignorance overlooks the need for ventilation; ignorance appraises a book by its exterior, and sacrifices, it may be the "o'erdusted gold" of a Caxton, or it may be a work of true genius in a cheap and ordinary edition. Mr. Blades, on the one hand, has rescued Pynsons on their way to the butter-shop; and we, on our part, have redeemed Emily Brontë's last verses—almost the noblest poem ever written by a woman in the English language—from a volume half torn up, because, forsooth, it had little to boast in the way of external appearance. There is another kind of ignorance, which perhaps operates towards the preservation of books—that fond conceit which leads a man to ascribe incredible rarity to a book of which none of his neighbours have heard, or vast antiquity to one no older than his grandfather. Numbers of books, especially in the United States, have owed their preservation to such amiable delusions; but unfortunately their preservation is in most cases a very small benefit.

Whether or no Mr. Blades' treatise might have been more comprehensive and philosophical, it is undoubtedly very practical, and all its precepts deserve respectful attention, especially those which have any reference to heat or ventilation. Bookworms in this favoured country are now nearly as extinct as wolves (we have seen some imported from Candia); and against book thieves there is no remedy but lock and key. The spiritual enemies of literature in this age accomplish their purpose less by the destruction of good books than by the multiplication of bad ones, and the present is hardly a suitable occasion to deal with them. To part, as Mr. Blades would have desired, so far as may be in charity with all men, we will conclude with the observation that this much may be said even for the enemies of books—that they have unintentionally highly encouraged the race of bibliophilists, whether bookhunters or booksellers. If books had always received the care and attention which they ought to receive, the occupation of this interesting class would be as gone as Othello's. The Gutenberg Bible would exist in two hundred and fifty copies, more or less. The Caxtons would be numerous, perfect, and in excellent condition. To find a unique, one would have to resort to such curiosities as a single impression on vellum, or a special copy prepared for presentation upon some extraordinary occasion.

  1. Edition of 1896.