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gertrude

October 2017

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reading

Charles Lamb on books and reading

In an essay called DETACHED THOUGHTS ON BOOKS AND READING, Lamb discusses the pleasures of reading and ponders on whether or not it matters in which edition you read a book.

To mind the inside of a book is to entertain one's self with the forced product of another man's brain. …

When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me. I have no repugnances. Shaftesbury is not too genteel for me, nor Jonathan Wild too low. I can read any thing which I call a book.


But what is a book? According to Lamb, magazines, gazetteers and certain types of non-fiction don’t count. His blood boils when he sees such non-books nicely bound:

I never see these impostors, but I long to strip them, to warm my ragged veterans in their spoils.

Not that he prizes a fine binding above a battered one.

In some respects the better a book is, the less it demands from binding. Fielding, Smollet, Sterne, and all that class of perpetually self-reproductive volumes—Great Nature's Stereotypes—we see them individually perish with less regret, because we know the copies of them to be "eterne."

This especially true of Shakespeare and other favourites.

I do not care for a First Folio of Shakspeare. …I like those editions of him best, which have been oftenest tumbled about and handled.— ...

Thomson's Seasons, again, looks best (I maintain it) a little torn, and dog's-eared. How beautiful to a genuine lover of reading are the sullied leaves, and worn out appearance,

There’s a wonderful passage where he imagines a poor, hard working person snatching a few precious moments of reading at the end of the day’s toil and being briefly transported to other worlds. In these cases, the more battered the book, the greater its battle honours. I’ve put these quotes slightly out of order but I think they give a flavour of the man.

Does it matter to you whether or not a book is a beautiful object? I’m sure we all like to handle a fine binding. I’m quite likely to have a nice Folio edition of a favourite book on the shelves yet reach for a battered old Penguin when I actually want to re-read it.

Comments

Interesting views! A beautifully bound book is a wonderful thing to see and hold but is pretty much useless otherwise if the contents are crap :) To me, anything that makes the reader feel connected is worth reading :)
I think Charles Lamb would have agreed completely with your second sentence!