Rambling | Newberry


You might have liked Charles Francis Blackburn (1828-1896). He seems to be a chatty, cheerful chap, but, of course, you can seem to be anything if you’re writing about yourself. I have not so far been able to find out if anyone else ever wrote about him, so we are stuck with one man’s opinion. He might have wanted it that way. His death date is the only piece of information I can find that does NOT come from this slender dark red book. Here, he tells of himself basically only that he traveled, that he had serious, strict parents, and that he made his living for a while (no hint how long) cataloguing books for rare book dealers. He regarded this as drudgery. But, he says, if it’s something no one is demanding you do, the work can be kind of fun.

And so, in or around 1893, he sat down and wrote out a catalog of all the books in his bookcase, which stood ten feet by three feet. This was published by Sampson Low in London in an edition of 500 copies. It is called Rambles In Books, and he spends a couple of pages explaining why he did NOT call it Rambles THROUGH Books, Lover of Books, or Journeys In Books. He is that kind of man.

But if you like to listen to someone who will take you on an alphabetical ramble through everything in his modest library, he’s kind of fun to hang out with. He admits that there are books on his shelves that he bought because everyone tells him he OUGHT to read them (Sartor Resartus) and that there are books there he has no intention of reading (an uncut, unopened copy of a book on reading character in people’s faces.)

The catalogue runs from Sir Robert Adair through Emile Zola. Zola is one of several daring inclusions, as he was considered a controversial novelist, and Mr. Blackburn was brought up to believe reading novels was a waste of time in any case. But starting at the top, he kind of lets you know what kind of a chat this will be by telling you about Sir Robert Adair’s Historical Memoir of a Mission to the Court of Vienna in 1806:

“Some years ago, I wanted Adair’s book. I had to wait until it presented itself at a suitable price. Now it is here, I forget what made it desirable.”

(With a review like that, I expect droves of people to descend on the Book Fair looking for it in July. I haven’t got it. There is a copy in the Newberry’s collection.)

He refers again and again to a childhood in which he was allowed books, but only those meant to be improving or educational. He says of Fairy Legends and Traditions in the South of Ireland that it is “one of the few amusing books I had access to when I was a boy.” There is a novel he has not for reading but as a recollection of a time when he was allowed a bound volume of a useful journal, and found the novel serialized there (but only the first half.)

He knows ABOUT book collecting, but disdains it. His is a library solely of personal treasures (though he will often go on about how pretty the book is, and mention nothing at all about the text.) He notes that one book on a shelf is a beat-up old library copy because the first copy he ever read was also a beat-up old library copy. He can’t imagine reading it in better condition. He explains why he has duplicates: three different copies of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, for example. (One is nice and flat, while another has a binding that’s easy to open.) He has four Bibles, in English, Latin, German and French, and a good load of Shakespeare in English, French, and German. He feels the need to excuse himself for having so many foreign books (and wishes the word “foreign” could be struck from English). He read all these languages, by the way. He notes that he learned a LOT of French from a French edition of Boccaccio and dares you to comment on his morals.

Some books offer him the opportunity to go off an a tangent, as when he tosses in a glossary of sailor slang or when the letters of the Earl of Chesterfield gives him an excuse to define what a gentleman is (he feels the Earl of Chesterfield qualified.)

If there is a problem in all this book chat, it is that a majority of the authors discussed are people who have dropped from most libraries and book fairs. He has disparaging remarks on Walt Whitman, three pages on a single book by Schopenhauer, and an appreciation of Herman Melville (he liked Moby Dick as a novel AND as a source of information on the life cycle of the sperm whale.) But he is also a fan of Hamilton Aide, H.T. Finck, and H.C. Keene, who are on few Must Read Lists today.

Still, it’s fun to hear from a man who read them, and felt they belonged among the four hundred books he has made room for. While you’re rambling through books in July, maybe you’ll pick up Rambles In Books and thrill to Mr. Blackburn’s guided tour.

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