Thursday, May 13, 2010

Leftovers

In the modern version of the university library, with on-line renewals a matter of ease rather than the physical inconvenience of lugging a huge bag of books back in to the physical place of the library itself, it is common to think of library books as being in one's possession for a matter of years (five years, to be more precise - at Columbia one is able to renew for up to 10 semesters online before needing to bring the books in in person to "reset" the borrowing period!).

But a spell out of town prompts purging of the home library collection - I am going to keep some library books in my office, but mostly I must get rid of 'em all for now...

Thus the leftover phenomenon - it is like eating things out of the fridge, they may have been very good in the first place but there is a sense of duty in their later consumption.

I became mesmerized the other evening, though, as I reread Richard Altick's The English Common Reader. My Columbia colleague Gerald Cloud mentioned it in a discussion earlier this year, and it reminded me that I wanted to revisit it - I think I last read it (or perhaps "dipped into it" is the apter phrase?) as an undergraduate researching the forms of serial publication adopted and developed by Dickens.

It really is a great read! I couldn't put it down - the point about the strange convergence of utilitarian and evangelical anti-fiction movements in the nineteenth century is extremely well taken - but here are a few bits I particularly enjoyed, the first one just for fun and for the pleasures of regional spelling and the second because it picks up on my previous post.

An opponent of Edinburgh 18th-century lending-library pioneer Allen Ramsay's practices:
"... this profannes is come to a great hight, all the villanous profane and obscene books and playes . . . are gote doun from London by Allen Ramsay, and lent out, for an easy price, to young boyes, servant weemin of the better sort, and gentlemen, and vice and obscenity dreadfully propagated. Ramsay has a booke in his shope wherein all the names of those that borrou his playes and bookes, for two pence a night, or some such rate, are sett doun; and by these, wickedness of all kins are dreadfully propagat among the youth of all sorts."
And here is William Cobbett's description (as given by his nineteenth-century biographer) of seeing a copy of A Tale of a Tub in a bookseller's window at Richmond (for 3d.) and purchasing it and reading it behind a haystack at Kew Gardens:
The book was so different from any thing that I had ever read before: it was something so new to my mind, that, though I could not at all understand some of it, it delighted me beyond description; and it produced what I have always considered a sort of birth of intellect. I read on till it was dark, without any thought about supper or bed. When I could see no longer, I put my little book in my pocket, and tumbled down by the side of the stack, where I slept till the birds in Kew Gardens awaked me in the morning; when I started to Kew, reading my little book.

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