...dog-eared in thirty-one places...
“…dog-eared in thirty-one places…”

I’ve been reading Arthur Conan Doyle‘s first novel, The Narrative of John Smith, just published for the first time by the British Library. It’s no The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, that’s for sure. For one thing, he seems to have left out any semblance of plot. But it does incorporate some entertaining pronouncements. Here’s one I identify with highly:

There should be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Books. I hate to see the poor patient things knocked about and disfigured. A book is a mummified soul embalmed in morocco leather and printer’s ink instead of cerecloths and unguents. It is the concentrated essence of a man. Poor Horatius Flaccus has turned to an impalpable powder by this time, but there is his very spirit stuck like a fly in amber, in that brown-backed volume in the corner. A line of books should make a man subdued and reverent. If he cannot learn to treat them with becoming decency he should be forced.

If a bibliophile House of Commons were to pass a ‘Bill for the better preservation of books’ we should have paragraphs of this sort under the headings of ‘Police Intelligence’ in the newspapers of the year 2000: ‘Marylebone Police Court. Brutal outrage upon an Elzevir Virgil. James Brown, a savage-looking elderly man, was charged with a cowardly attack upon a copy of Virgil’s poems issued by the Elzevir press. Police Constable Jones deposed that on Tuesday evening about seven o’clock some of the neighbours complained to him of the prisoner’s conduct. He saw him sitting at an open window with the book in front of him which he was dog-earing, thumb-marking and otherwise ill using. Prisoner expressed the greatest surprise upon being arrested. John Robinson, librarian of the casualty section of the British Museum, deposed to the book, having been brought in in a condition which could only have arisen from extreme violence. It was dog-eared in thirty-one places, page forty-six was suffering from a clean cut four inches long, and the whole volume was a mass of pencil — and finger — marks. Prisoner, on being asked for his defence, remarked that the book was his own and that he might do what he liked with it. Magistrate: “Nothing of the kind, sir! Your wife and children are your own but the law does not allow you to ill treat them! I shall decree a judicial separation between the Virgil and yourself: and condemn you to a week’s hard labour.” Prisoner was removed, protesting. The book is doing well and will soon be able to quit the museum.’

Portrait of Arthur Conan Doyle by Sidney Paget, c. 1890
Portrait of Arthur Conan Doyle by Sidney Paget, c. 1890

What a wonderful, wonderful thing it is, though use has dulled our admiration of it! Here are all these dead men lurking inside my oaken case, ready to come out and talk to me whenever I may desire it. Do I wish philosophy? Here are Aristotle, Plato, Bacon, Kant and Descartes, all ready to confide to one their very inmost thoughts upon a subject which they have made their own. Am I dreamy and poetical? Out come Heine and Shelley and Goethe and Keats with all their wealth of harmony and imagination. Or am I in need of amusement on the long winter evenings? You have but to light your reading lamp and beckon to any one of the world’s great storytellers, and the dead man will come forth and prattle to you by the hour. That reading-lamp is the real Aladdin’s wonder for summoning the genii with. Indeed, the dead are such good company that one is apt to think too little of the living.

I know that there are those who think it is a sign of appreciation to write in, dog-ear, underline, highlight, and otherwise modify books — Anne Fadiman lauds such things as carnal acts — but I can’t bring myself to do so. I just can’t.

One Response to “Conan Doyle on the prevention of cruelty to books”

  1. JeffE Says:

    I don’t understand. It’s the content of books that are valuable, not (usually) the cellulose and ink. If a book gets too damaged to use, can’t you just print another one?

    (Ha ha only serious.)