Friday, March 13, 2009

The Charm of Desultory Reading

One of the nice things about my job in a small library is that I get to do a bit of everything. One project I've been working on is cataloguing the holdings of the local Archives, bit by bit. Right now we are working on a special collection called the Orr Family Collection. The Orrs are a family of renown in Stratford, R. Thomas Orr having saved the parkland around the river for the citizens rather than allowing it to be taken over for industry, among other notable achievements like helping found the Public Library way back in the early 1900's. He was a very bookish man, and his collection is full of fascinating fiction and science and poetry and history and travel; a bit of everything, really. It's been entertaining doing this cataloguing, but this week I came across one owned by Sarah Orr, who I am guessing was his wife, but as I have no idea really, she could have as easily been a sister. This is the first book of hers I have seen. Thomas didn't mark his books, other than pasting in an individualized bookplate, and signing his name on the front flyleaf: R. Thomas Orr, written in a forceful manner with a wide-nibbed pen. Sometimes a date is included.

This book, a book of essays by Sir John Lubbock entitled The Pleasures of Life, belongs to Sarah. Her name is written with a fine-nibbed pen, and is a graceful signature. The date she purchased the book, May 15th, 1900, is noted at the bottom left of the page. It is evident she read the book, as sentences she liked have been noted with a pencilled x at the beginning and end of the sentence. In an essay on friendship, she has x'd the following phrase:

Still less does Friendship confer any privilege to make ourselves disagreeable.

This one has even merited a date in the margin, June 10th, 1900.

Apart from the inherent attraction of a book from 1900 , in a pretty floral cloth binding, in perfect condition (the Orrs took care of their books), this pocket sized volume was interesting because of its contents. There are two essays on books in this collection; although I am cataloguing and thus working, and so can't actually read the books, I can dip in when the temptation is irresistable. I peeked into these two essays, and was justified by a statement made by Lubbock himself:

Such snatches of literature have indeed, special and peculiar charm. This is, I believe, partly due to the very fact of their being brief. Many readers miss much of the pleasure of reading by forcing themselves to dwell too long continuously on one subject. In a long railway journey, for instance, many persons take only a single book. The consequence is that, unless it is a story, after half an hour or an hour they are quite tired of it. Whereas, if they had two, or still better three books, on different subjects, and one of them of an amusing character, they would probably find that, by changing as soon as they felt at all weary, they would come back again and again to each with renewed zest, and hour after hour would pass pleasantly away. ... I quite agree, therefore, with Lord Iddesleigh as to the charm of desultory reading.

Something I think all book bloggers can agree on is our prediliction for lists. We all gather up our own year end lists, we read along with the 1001 Lists, the Guardian, the New York Times, anyone who will make a list! Well, this is not a new phenomenon. Lubbock in this book says:

It is one thing to own a library; it is quite another to use it wisely. I have often been astonished how little care people devote to the selection of what they read. Books, we know, are almost innumerable; our hours for reading are, alas! very few. And yet many people read almost by hazard. They will take any book they chance to find in a room at a friend's house; they will buy a novel at a railway-stall if it has an attractive title; indeed, I believe in some cases even the binding affects their choice. The selection is, no doubt, far from easy. I have often wished some one would recommend a list of a hundred good books.

He, of course, then goes on to do so. George Routledge & Sons issued a finely bound series of these selections, called Sir John Lubbock's Hundred Books. The funny thing is that the only pages in this volume that show any wear (besides the pencilled marks) are the two with the list of 100 recommended books. There is a stain along the fore edge; it looks like the paper has absorbed some oil, some hand lotion, perhaps, from sitting on Sarah's dressing table, open while she was beautifying. In any case, the list contains many classics of Greek and Roman and of Christian provenance. Lubbock specifically points out that he has vetoed any author still living (and this was before 1900, recall). What I found especially fascinating were the little checks Sarah had placed beside -- I am assuming -- the ones she'd read. This was altogether a delightful book, and seeing the traces of an earlier bibliophile made it very special to carefully work on this one.


  1. so maybe I'm a little bit jealous of your job :(

  2. I love this post Melanie! I can clearly see you doing this, carefully opening the book and discovering the secrets inside.

    Thank you very much for sharing with us.

  3. Just came across this blog - I love it - books I have never even come across in my book travels, and some I have. Your perspective is both witty and thorough. I'll keep coming back!

    - Laura

  4. Saveophelia - just these parts of it, let me assure you! ;)

    Tina - thanks! I was lucky to find this book.

    Laura - Thank you for dropping by - and for your compliments. You're too kind! I've popped over to your blog as well, it looks full of good things.

  5. That's it, I officially want your job! Guess I'm going to have to take a number and get in line huh?

  6. This story would make a great opening of a novel - as you go on to discover more about Sarah and her secrets.

    I love finding bits and pieces of the lives of people long gone. I regret not keeping books that my grandmother passed along to me after reading. Most of them were just novels of the day in paperback so it didn't occur to me to keep them. But she would annotate them in pencil. Especially racy portions would have "don't read this" in the margin.

  7. Maryb - I love the image of your grandmother leaving warning notes in the margins! I don't have any of my family's books either, it's sad.


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