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Likely Stories: The Book Lovers' Anthology

Jim McKeown

A compendium of writing about books, reading, readers, and libraries.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I came across a most unusual book with no author, editor, or translator.  The Book Lovers’ Anthology, compiled by the Bodliean Library at the University of Oxford, has no plot, no pictures, no characters – except for the thoughts and fancies of many noteworthy literary figures.  Therefore, all I can do is offer some tempting tidbits to make you smile, laugh, and occasionally groan.

In a letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey wrote, “Talk of the happiness of getting a great prize in the lottery!  What is that to opening a box of books!  The joy upon lifting up the cover must be something like what we shall feel when Peter the Porter opens the doors upstairs, and says, ‘Please do walk in, sir.’  That I shall never be paid for my time and labour according to the current value of time and labour, is tolerably certain;  but if anyone should offer me £10,000 to forgo that labour, I should bid him and his money go to the devil, for twice the sum could not purchase me half the enjoyment.  […]  In plain truth, I exist more among the dead than the living, and think more about them, and, perhaps, feel more about them” (4).

A less well-known contributor, C.C. Colton, wrote, “We should choose our books as we would our companions, for their sterling and intrinsic merit” (6).  From this side of the pond, Washington Irving wrote in his Sketch Book, “The scholar only knows how dear these silent, yet eloquent, companions of pure thoughts and innocent hours become in the season of adversity” (9).  Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books.  They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote, and the same reads.  We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy – with a pleasure, […] some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well nigh thought and said” (26).

Robert Lowe, Lord Sherbrooke spoke at the Croyden Science and Art Schools in 1869.  He exhorted the students to, “Cultivate above all things a taste for reading.  There is no pleasure so cheap, so innocent, and so remunerative as the real, hearty pleasure and taste for reading.  It does not come to everyone naturally.  Some people take to it naturally, and others do not, but I advise you to cultivate it, and endeavor to promote it in your minds.  In order to do that, you should read what amuses you and pleases you.  You should not begin with difficult works, because, if you do, you find the pursuit dry and tiresome.  I would even say to you, read novels, read frivolous books, read anything that will amuse you and give you a taste for reading” (35).  I have given this exact same advice to my students. 

So thank you Emerson, and Voltaire, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, Dickens, Swift, Laurence Sterne, Milton, Tennyson, Thackery, and many dozens more.  The Book Lovers’ Anthology: A Compendium of Writing about Books, Readers & Libraries compiled by the Bodliean Library in Oxford, England should not be read like a novel.  Browse through and sometimes open the volume to random pages and find all the wonders and delights of reading and books.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!