Adventures Among Books by Andrew Lang


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Page 1



In an age of reminiscences, is there room for the confessions of a
veteran, who remembers a great deal about books and very little about
people? I have often wondered that a _Biographia Literaria_ has so
seldom been attempted--a biography or autobiography of a man in his
relations with other minds. Coleridge, to be sure, gave this name to a
work of his, but he wandered from his apparent purpose into a world of
alien disquisitions. The following pages are frankly bookish, and to the
bookish only do they appeal. The habit of reading has been praised as a
virtue, and has been denounced as a vice. In no case, if we except the
perpetual study of newspapers (which cannot fairly be called reading), is
the vice, or the virtue, common. It is more innocent than opium-eating,
though, like opium-eating, it unlocks to us artificial paradises. I try
to say what I have found in books, what distractions from the world, what
teaching (not much), and what consolations.

In beginning an _autobiographia literaria_, an account of how, and in
what order, books have appealed to a mind, which books have ever above
all things delighted, the author must pray to be pardoned for the sin of
egotism. There is no other mind, naturally, of which the author knows so
much as of his own. _On n'a que soi_, as the poor girl says in one of M.
Paul Bourget's novels. In literature, as in love, one can only speak for
himself. This author did not, like Fulke Greville, retire into the
convent of literature from the strife of the world, rather he was born to
be, from the first, a dweller in the cloister of a library. Among the
poems which I remember best out of early boyhood is Lucy Ashton's song,
in the "Bride of Lammermoor":--

"Look not thou on beauty's charming,
Sit thou still when kings are arming,
Taste not when the wine-cup glistens,
Speak not when the people listens,
Stop thine ear against the singer,
From the red gold keep thy finger,
Vacant heart, and hand, and eye,
Easy live and quiet die."

The rhymes, unlearned, clung to my memory; they would sing themselves to
me on the way to school, or cricket-field, and, about the age of ten,
probably without quite understanding them, I had chosen them for a kind
of motto in life, a tune to murmur along the _fallentis semita vitae_.
This seems a queer idea for a small boy, but it must be confessed.

"It takes all sorts to make a world," some are soldiers from the cradle,
some merchants, some orators; nothing but a love of books was the gift
given to me by the fairies. It was probably derived from forebears on
both sides of my family, one a great reader, the other a considerable
collector of books which remained with us and were all tried, persevered
with, or abandoned in turn, by a student who has not blanched before the

About the age of four I learned to read by a simple process. I had heard
the elegy of Cock Robin till I knew it by rote, and I picked out the
letters and words which compose that classic till I could read it for
myself. Earlier than that, "Robinson Crusoe" had been read aloud to me,
in an abbreviated form, no doubt. I remember the pictures of Robinson
finding the footstep in the sand, and a dance of cannibals, and the
parrot. But, somehow, I have never read "Robinson" since: it is a
pleasure to come.

The first books which vividly impressed me were, naturally, fairy tales,
and chap-books about Robert Bruce, William Wallace, and Rob Roy. At that
time these little tracts could be bought for a penny apiece. I can still
see Bruce in full armour, and Wallace in a kilt, discoursing across a
burn, and Rob Roy slipping from the soldier's horse into the stream. They
did not then awaken a precocious patriotism; a boy of five is more at
home in Fairyland than in his own country. The sudden appearance of the
White Cat as a queen after her head was cut off, the fiendish malice of
the Yellow Dwarf, the strange cake of crocodile eggs and millet seed
which the mother of the Princess Frutilla made for the Fairy of the
Desert--these things, all fresh and astonishing, but certainly to be
credited, are my first memories of romance. One story of a White
Serpent, with a woodcut of that mysterious reptile, I neglected to
secure, probably for want of a penny, and I have regretted it ever since.
One never sees those chap books now. "The White Serpent," in spite of
all research, remains _introuvable_. It was a lost chance, and Fortune
does not forgive. Nobody ever interfered with these, or indeed with any
other studies of ours at that time, as long as they were not prosecuted
on Sundays. "The fightingest parts of the Bible," and the Apocrypha, and
stories like that of the Witch of Endor, were sabbatical literature, read
in a huge old illustrated Bible. How I advanced from the fairy tales to
Shakespeare, what stages there were on the way--for there must have been
stages--is a thing that memory cannot recover. A nursery legend tells
that I was wont to arrange six open books on six chairs, and go from one
to the others, perusing them by turns. No doubt this was what people
call "desultory reading," but I did not hear the criticism till later,
and then too often for my comfort. Memory holds a picture, more vivid
than most, of a small boy reading the "Midsummer Night's Dream" by
firelight, in a room where candles were lit, and some one touched the
piano, and a young man and a girl were playing chess. The Shakespeare
was a volume of Kenny Meadows' edition; there are fairies in it, and the
fairies seemed to come out of Shakespeare's dream into the music and the
firelight. At that moment I think that I was happy; it seemed an
enchanted glimpse of eternity in Paradise; nothing resembling it remains
with me, out of all the years.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 5th Jun 2020, 22:35