The Book of Delight and Other Papers
Israel Abrahams

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The Solace of Books

In the year 1190, Judah ibn Tibbon, a famous Provenšal Jew, who had migrated to Southern France from Granada, wrote in Hebrew as follows to his son:

“Avoid bad society: make thy books thy companions. Let thy bookcases and shelves be thy gardens and pleasure grounds. Pluck the fruit that grows therein; gather the roses, the spices, and the myrrh. If thy soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from scene to scene. Then shall thy desire renew itself, and thy soul be rich with manifold delight.”

In this beautiful comparison of a library to a garden, there is one point missing. The perfection of enjoyment is reached when the library, or at least a portable part of it, is actually carried into the garden. When Lightfoot was residing at Ashley (Staffordshire), he followed this course, as we know from a letter of his biographer. “There he built himself a small house in the midst of a garden, containing two rooms below, viz. a study and a withdrawing room, and a lodging chamber above; and there he studied hard, and laid the foundations of his Rabbinic learning, and took great delight, lodging there often, though [quaintly adds John Stype] he was then a married man.” Montaigne, whose great-grandfather, be it recalled, was a Spanish Jew, did not possess a library built in the open air, but he had the next best thing. He used the top story of a tower, whence, says he, “I behold under me my garden.”

In ancient Athens, philosophers thought out their grandest ideas walking up and down their groves. Nature sobers us. “When I behold Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained; what is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou visitest him?” But if nature sobers, she also consoles. As the Psalmist continues: “Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and crownest him with glory and honor. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet.” Face to face with nature, man realizes that he is greater than she. “On earth there is nothing great but man, in man there is nothing great but mind.” So, no doubt, the Athenian sages gained courage as well as modesty from the contact of mind with nature. And not they only, for our own Jewish treasure, the Mishnah, grew up, if not literally, at least metaphorically, in the open air, in the vineyard of Jamnia. Standing in the sordid little village which to-day occupies the site of ancient Jamnia, with the sea close at hand and the plain of Sharon and the Judean lowlands at my feet, I could see Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai and his comrades pacing to and fro, pondering those great thoughts which live among us now, though the authors of them have been in their graves for eighteen centuries.

It is curious how often this habit of movement goes with thinking. Montaigne says: “Every place of retirement requires a Walk. My thoughts sleep if I sit still; my Fancy does not go by itself, as it goes when my Legs move it.” What Montaigne seems to mean is that we love rhythm. Body and mind must move together in harmony. So it is with the Mohammedan over the Koran, and the Rabbi over the Talmud. Jews sway at prayer for the same reason. Movement of the body is not a mere mannerism; it is part of the emotion, like the instrumental accompaniment to a song. The child cons his lesson moving; we foolishly call it “fidgeting.” The child is never receptive unless also active. But there is another of Montaigne’s feelings, with which I have no sympathy. He loved to think when on the move, but his walk must be solitary. “’Tis here,” he says of his library, “I am in my kingdom, and I endeavor to make myself an absolute monarch. So I sequester this one corner from all society–conjugal, filial, civil.” This is a detestable habit. It is the acme of selfishness, to shut yourself up with your books. To write over your study door “Let no one enter here!” is to proclaim your work divorced from life. Montaigne gloried in the inaccessibility of his asylum. His house was perched upon an “overpeering hillock,” so that in any part of it–still more in the round room of the tower–he could “the better seclude myself from company, and keep encroachers from me.” Yet some may work best when there are others beside them. From the book the reader turns to the child that prattles near, and realizes how much more the child can ask than the book can answer. The presence of the young living soul corrects the vanity of the dead old pedant. Books are most solacing when the limitations of bookish wisdom are perceived. “Literature,” said Matthew Arnold, “is a criticism of life." This is true, despite the objections of Saintsbury, but I venture to add that “life is a criticism of literature.”

Now, I am not going to convert a paper on the Solace of Books into a paper in dispraise of books. I shall not be so untrue to my theme. But I give fair warning that I shall make no attempt to scale the height or sound the depth of the intellectual phases of this great subject. I invite my reader only to dally desultorily on the gentler slopes of sentiment.

One of the most comforting qualities of books has been well expressed by Richard of Bury in his famous Philobiblon, written in 1344. This is an exquisite little volume on the Love of Books, which Mr. Israel Gollancz has now edited in an exquisite edition, attainable for the sum of one shilling. “How safely,” says Richard, “we lay bare the poverty of human ignorance to books, without feeling any shame.”

Then he goes on to describe books as those silent teachers who “instruct us without rods or stripes; without taunts or anger; without gifts or money; who are not asleep when we approach them, and do not deny us when we question them; who do not chide us when we err, or laugh at us if we are ignorant.”

It is Richard of Bury’s last phrase that I find so solacing. No one is ever ashamed of turning to a book, but many hesitate to admit their ignorance to an interlocutor. Your dictionary, your encyclopedia, and your other books, are the recipients of many a silent confession of nescience which you would never dream of making auricular. You go to these “golden pots in which manna is stored,” and extract food exactly to your passing taste, without needing to admit, as Esau did to Jacob, that you are hungry unto death. This comparison of books to food is of itself solacing, for there is always something attractive in metaphors drawn from the delights of the table. The metaphor is very old.

“Open thy mouth,” said the Lord to Ezekiel, “and eat that which I give thee. And when I looked, a hand was put forth unto me, and, lo, a scroll of a book was therein.... Then I did eat it, and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.”

What a quaint use does Richard of Bury make of this very passage! Addressing the clergy, he says “Eat the book with Ezekiel, that the belly of your memory may be sweetened within, and thus, as with the panther refreshed, to whose breath all beasts and cattle long to approach, the sweet savor of the spices it has eaten may shed a perfume without.”

Willing enough would I be to devote the whole of my paper to Richard of Bury. I must, however, content myself with one other noble extract, which, I hope, will whet my reader’s appetite for more: “Moses, the gentlest of men, teaches us to make bookcases most neatly, wherein they [books] may be protected from any injury. Take, he says, this book of the Law and put it in the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God. O fitting place and appropriate for a library, which was made of imperishable shittim [i.e. acacia] wood, and was covered within and without with gold.”

Still we must not push this idea of costly bookcases too far. Judah the Pious wrote in the twelfth century, “Books were made for use, not to be hidden away.” This reminds me that Richard of Bury is not the only medieval book-lover with whom we might spend a pleasant evening. Judah ben Samuel Sir Leon, surnamed the Pious, whom I have just quoted, wrote the “Book of the Pious” in Hebrew, in 1190, and it has many excellent paragraphs about books. Judah’s subject is, however, the care of books rather than the solace derivable from them. Still, he comes into my theme, for few people can have enjoyed books more than he. He had no selfish love for them: he not only possessed books, he lent them. He was a very prince of book-lenders, for he did not object if the borrowers of his books re-lent them in their turn. So, on dying, he advised his sons to lend his books even to an enemy (par. 876). “If a father dies,” he says elsewhere (par. 919), “and leaves a dog and a book to his sons, one shall not say to the other, You take the dog, and I’ll take the book,” as though the two were comparable in value. Poor, primitive Judah the Pious! We wiser moderns should never dream of making the comparison between a dog and a book, but for the opposite reason. Judah shrank from equalling a book to a dog, but we know better than to undervalue a dog so far as to compare it with a book. The kennel costs more than the bookcase, and love of dogs is a higher solace than love of books. To those who think thus, what more convincing condemnation of books could be formulated than the phrase coined by Gilbert de Porre in praise of his library, “It is a garden of immortal fruits, without dog or dragon.”

I meant to part with Richard of Bury, but I must ask permission to revert to him. Some of the delight he felt in books arose from his preference of reading to oral intercourse. “The truth in speech perishes with the sound: it is patent to the ear only and eludes the sight: begins and perishes as it were in a breath.” Personally I share this view, and I believe firmly that the written word brings more pleasure than the spoken word.

Plato held the opposite view. He would have agreed with the advice given by Chesterfield to his son, “Lay aside the best book when you can go into the best company–depend upon it you change for the better.” Plato did, indeed, characterize books as “immortal sons deifying their sires.” But, on the opposite side, he has that memorable passage, part of which I now quote, from the same source that has supplied several others of my quotations, Mr. Alexander Ireland’s “Book-Lover’s Enchiridion.” “Writing,” says Plato, “has this terrible disadvantage, which puts it on the same footing with painting. The artist’s productions stand before you, as if they were alive: but if you ask them anything, they keep a solemn silence. Just so with written discourse: you would fancy it full of the thoughts it speaks: but if you ask it something that you want to know about what is said, it looks at you always with the same one sign. And, once committed to writing, discourse is tossed about everywhere indiscriminately, among those who understand and those to whom it is naught, and who cannot select the fit from the unfit.” Plato further complains, adds Mr. Martineau, that “Theuth, the inventor of letters, had ruined men’s memories and living command of their knowledge, by inducing a lazy trust in records ready to their hand: and he limits the benefit of the litera scripta to the compensation it provides for the failing memory of old age, when reading naturally becomes the great solace of life.... Plato’s tone is invariably depreciatory of everything committed to writing, with the exception of laws.”

This was also the early Rabbinical view, for while the Law might, nay, must, be written, the rest of the tradition was to be orally confided. The oral book was the specialty of the Rabbinical schools. We moderns, who are to the ancients, in Rabbinic phrase, as asses to angels in intellect, cannot rely upon oral teaching–our memory is too weak to bear the strain. Even when a student attends an oral lecture, he proves my point, because he takes notes.

The ideal lies, as usual, in a compromise. Reading profits most when, beside the book, you have some one with whom to talk about the book. If that some one be the author of the book, good; if it be your teacher, better; if it be a fellow-student, better still; if it be members of your family circle, best of all. The teacher has only succeeded when he feels that his students can do without him, can use their books by themselves and for themselves. But personal intercourse in studies between equals is never obsolete. “Provide thyself with a fellow-student,” said the Rabbi. Friendship made over a book is fast, enduring; this friendship is the great solace. How much we Jews have lost in modern times in having given up the old habit of reading good books together in the family circle! Religious literature thus had a halo of home about it, and the halo never faded throughout life. From the pages of the book in after years the father’s loving voice still spoke to his child. But when it comes to the author, I have doubts whether it be at all good to have him near you when you read his book. You may take an unfair advantage of him, and reject his book, because you find the writer personally antipathetic. Or he may take an unfair advantage of you, and control you by his personal fascination. You remember the critic of Demosthenes, who remarked to him of a certain oration, “When I first read your speech, I was convinced, just as the Athenians were; but when I read it again, I saw through its fallacies." “Yes,” rejoined Demosthenes, “but the Athenians heard it only once.” A book you read more than once: for you possess only what you understand. I do not doubt that the best readers are those who move least in literary circles, who are unprejudiced one way or the other by their personal likes or dislikes of literary men. How detestable are personal paragraphs about authors–often, alas! autobiographical titbits. We expect a little more reticence: we expect the author to say what he has to say in his book, and not in his talks about his book and himself. We expect him to express himself and suppress himself. “Respect the books,” says Judah the Pious, “or you show disrespect to the writer.” No, not to the writer, but to the soul whose progeny the book is, to the living intellect that bred it, in Milton’s noble phrase, to “an Immortality rather than a life.” “Many a man,” he says, “lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

It is a sober truth that, of the books we chiefly love, we know least about the authors. Perpetrating probably the only joke in his great Bodleian Catalogue, Dr. Steinschneider enters the Bible under the heading Anonyma. We are nowadays so concerned to know whether Moses or another wrote the Pentateuch, that we neglect the Pentateuch as though no one had ever written it. What do we know about the personality of Shakespeare? Perhaps we are happy in our ignorance. “Sometimes,” said Jonathan Swift, “I read a book with pleasure and detest the author.” Most of us would say the same of Jonathan Swift himself, and all of us, I think, share R.L. Stevenson’s resentment against a book with the portrait of a living author, and in a heightened degree against an English translation of an ancient Hebrew classic with the translator’s portrait. Sometimes such a translator is the author; his rendering, at all events, is not the classic. A certain Fidentinus once stole the work of the Roman poet Martial, and read it out to the assembly as his own; whereupon Martial wrote this epigram,

  The book you read is, Fidentinus, mine,
  Tho’ read so badly, it well may pass for thine.

But even apart from such bad taste as the aforementioned translator’s, I do not like to see portraits of living authors in their books. The author of a good book becomes your intimate, but it is the author as you know him from his book, not as you see him in the flesh or on a silver print. I quote Stevenson again: “When you have read, you carry away with you a memory of the man himself; it is as though you had touched a loyal hand, looked into brave eyes, and made a noble friend; there is another bond on you thenceforward, binding you to life and to the love of virtue.”

This line of thought leads me to the further remark, that some part of the solace derived from books has changed its character since the art of printing was invented. In former times the personality, if not of the author, at all events of the scribe, pressed itself perforce upon the reader. The reader had before him, not necessarily an autograph, but at all events a manuscript. Printing has suppressed this individuality, and the change is not all for the better. The evil consists in this, that whereas of old a book, being handwritten, was clearly recognized as the work of some one’s hand, it now assumes, being printed, an impersonal importance, which may be beyond its deserts. Especially is this the case with what we may term religious authorities; we are now apt to forget that behind the authority there stands simply–the author. It is instructive to contrast the customary method of citing two great codifiers of Jewish law–Maimonides and Joseph Caro. Caro lived in the age of printing, and the Shulchan Aruch was the first great Jewish book composed after the printing-press was in operation. The result has been, that the Shulchan Aruch has become an impersonal authority, rarely cited by the author’s name, while the Mishneh Torah is mostly referred to as the Rambam, i.e. Maimonides.

For all that, printing has been a gain, even from the point of view at which I have just arrived. Not only has it demolished the barrier which the scribe’s personality interposed between author and reader, but, by increasing the number of readers, it has added to the solace of each. For the solace of books is never selfish–the book-miser is never the book-lover, nor does the mere collector of rarities and preciosities deserve that name, for the one hoards, but does not own; the other serves Mammon, not God. The modern cheapening of books–the immediate result of printing–not only extends culture, it intensifies culture. Your joy in a book is truest when the book is cheapest, when you know that it is, or might be, in the hands of thousands of others, who go with you in the throng towards the same divine joy.

These sentiments are clearly those of a Philistine. The fate of that last word, by the way, is curious. The Philistines, Mr. Macalistcr discovered when excavating Gezer, were the only artistic people in Palestine! Using the term, however, in the sense to which Matthew Arnold gave vogue, I am a Philistine in taste, I suppose, for I never can bring myself nowadays to buy a second-hand book. For dusty old tomes, I go to the public library; but my own private books must be sweet and clean. There are many who prefer old copies, who revel in the inscribed names of former owners, and prize their marginal annotations. If there be some special sentimental associations connected with these factors, if the books be heirlooms, and the annotations come from a vanished, but beloved, hand, then the old book becomes an old love. But in most cases these things seem to me the defects of youth, not the virtues of age; for they are usually too recent to be venerable, though they are just old enough to disfigure. Let my books be young, fresh, and fragrant in their virgin purity, unspotted from the world. If my copy is to be soiled, I want to do all the soiling myself. It is very different with a manuscript, which cannot be too old or too dowdy. These are its graces. Dr. Neubauer once said to me, “I take no interest in a girl who has seen more than seventeen years, nor in a manuscript that has seen less than seven hundred.” Alonzo of Aragon was wont to say in commendation of age, that “age appeared to be best in four things: old wood to burn; old wine to drink; old friends to trust; and old authors to read.”

This, however, is not my present point, for I have too much consideration for my readers to attempt to embroil them in the old “battle of the books" that raged round the silly question whether the ancients or the moderns wrote better. I am discussing the age, not of the author, but of the copy. As a critic, as an admirer of old printing, as an archeologist, I feel regard for the editio princeps, but as a lover I prefer the cheap reprint. Old manuscripts certainly have their charm, but they must have been written at least before the invention of printing. Otherwise a manuscript is an anachronism–it recalls too readily the editorial “declined with thanks.” At best, the autograph original of a modern work is a literary curiosity, it reveals the author’s mechanism, not his mind. But old manuscripts are in a different case; their age has increased their charm, mellowed and confirmed their graces, whether they be canonical books, which “defile the hand” in the Rabbinical sense, or Genizah-grimed fragments, which soil the fingers more literally. And when the dust of ages is removed, these old-world relics renew their youth, and stand forth as witnesses to Israel’s unshakable devotion to his heritage.

I have confessed to one Philistine habit; let me plead guilty to another. I prefer to read a book rather than hear a lecture, because in the case of the book I can turn to the last page first. I do like to know before I start whether he marries her in the end or not. You cannot do this with a spoken discourse, for you have to wait the lecturer’s pleasure, and may discover to your chagrin, not only that the end is very long in coming, but that when it does come, it is of such a nature that, had you foreseen it, you would certainly not have been present at the beginning. The real interest of a love story is its process: though you may read the consummation first, you are still anxious as to the course of the courtship. But, in sober earnest, those people err who censure readers for trying to peep at the last page first. For this much-abused habit has a deep significance when applied to life. You will remember the ritual rule, “It is the custom of all Israel for the reader of the Scroll of Esther to read and spread out the Scroll like a letter, to make the miracle visible." I remember hearing a sermon just before Purim, in Vienna, and the Jewish preacher gave an admirable homiletic explanation of this rule. He pointed out that in the story of Esther the fate of the Jews has very dark moments, destruction faces them, and hope is remote. But in the end? In the end all goes well. Now, by spreading out the Megillah in folds, displaying the end with the beginning, “the miracle is made visible.” Once Lord Salisbury, when some timid Englishmen regarded the approach of the Russians to India as a menace, told his countrymen to use large-scale maps, for these would convince them that the Russians were not so near India after all. We Jews suffer from the same nervousness. We need to use large-scale charts of human history. We need to read history in centuries, not in years. Then we should see things in their true perspective, with God changeless, as men move down the ringing grooves of change. We should then be fuller of content and confidence. We might gain a glimpse of the Divine plan, and might perhaps get out of our habit of crying “All is lost” at every passing persecution. As if never before had there been weeping for a night! As if there had not always been abounding joy the morning after! Then let us, like God Himself, try to see the end in the beginning, let us spread out the Scroll, so that the glory of the finish may transfigure and illumine the gloom and sadness of the intermediate course, and thus “the miracle” of God’s providential love will be “made visible” to all who have eyes to see it.

What strikes a real lover of books when he casts his eye over the fine things that have been said about reading, is this: there is too much said about profit, about advantage. “Reading,” said Bacon, “maketh a full man," and reading has been justified a thousand times on this famous plea. But, some one else, I forget who, says, “You may as well expect to become strong by always eating, as wise by always reading.” Herbert Spencer was once blamed by a friend for reading so little. Spencer replied, “If I read as much as you do, I should know as little as you do.” Too many of the eulogies of books are utilitarian. A book has been termed “the home traveller’s ship or horse,” and libraries, “the wardrobes of literature." Another favorite phrase is Montaigne’s, “’Tis the best viaticum for this human journey,” a phrase paralleled by the Rabbinic use of the Biblical “provender for the way.” “The aliment of youth, the comfort of old age,” so Cicero terms books. “The sick man is not to be pitied when he has his cure in his sleeve"–that is where they used to carry their books. But I cannot go through the long list of the beautiful, yet inadequate, similes that abound in the works of great men, many of which can be read in the “Book-Lover’s Enchiridion,” to which I have already alluded.

One constant comparison is of books to friends. This is perhaps best worked out in one of the Epistles of Erasmus, which the “Enchiridion” omits: “You want to know what I am doing. I devote myself to my friends, with whom I enjoy the most delightful intercourse. With them I shut myself in some corner, where I avoid the gaping crowd, and either speak to them in sweet whispers, or listen to their gentle voices, talking with them as with myself. Can anything be more convenient than this? They never hide their own secrets, while they keep sacred whatever is entrusted to them. They speak when bidden, and when not bidden they hold their tongue. They talk of what you wish, and as long as you wish; do not flatter, feign nothing, keep back nothing, freely tell you of your faults, and take no man’s character away. What they say is either amusing or wholesome. In prosperity they moderate, in affliction they console; they do not vary with fortune, they follow you in all dangers, and last out to the very grave. Nothing can be more candid than their relations with one another. I visit them from time to time, now choosing one companion and now another, with perfect impartiality. With these humble friends, I bury myself in seclusion. What wealth or what sceptres would I take in exchange for this tranquil life?”

Tranquillity is a not unworthy characteristic of the scholar, but, taking Erasmus at his word, would he not have been even a greater man than he was, had he been less tranquil and more strenuous? His great r˘le in the history of European culture would have been greater still, had he been readier to bear the rubs which come from rough contact with the world. I will not, however, allow myself to be led off into this alluring digression, whether books or experience make a man wiser. Books may simply turn a man into a “learned fool,” and, on the other hand, experience may equally fail to teach any of the lessons of wisdom. As Moore says:

  My only books
  Were woman’s looks,
  And folly’s all they taught me.

The so-called men of the world often know little enough of the world of men. It is a delusion to think that the business man is necessarily business-like. Your business man is often the most un-business-like creature imaginable. For practical ability, give me the man of letters. Life among books often leads to insight into the book of life. At Cambridge we speak of the reading men and the sporting men. Sir Richard Jebb, when he went to Cambridge, was asked, “Do you mean to be a sporting man or a reading man?” He replied, “Neither! I want to be a man who reads.” Marcus Aurelius, the scholar and philosopher, was not the least efficient of the Emperors of Rome. James Martineau was right when he said that the student not only becomes a better man, but he also becomes a better student, when he concerns himself with the practical affairs of life as well as with his books. And the idea cuts both ways. We should be better men of business if we were also men of books. It is not necessary to recall that the ancient Rabbis were not professional bookmen. They were smiths and ploughmen, traders and merchants, and their businesses and their trades were idealized and ennobled–and, may we not add, their handiwork improved?–by the expenditure of their leisure in the schools and libraries of Jerusalem.

And so all the foregoing comparisons between books and other objects of utility or delight, charming though some of these comparisons are, fail to satisfy one. One feels that the old Jewish conception is the only completely true one: that conception which came to its climax in the appointment of a benediction to be uttered before beginning to read a book of the Law.

The real solace of books comes from the sense of service, to be rendered or received; and one must enter that holy of holies, the library, with a grateful benediction on one’s lip, and humility and reverence and joy in one’s soul. Of all the writers about books, Charles Lamb, in his playful way, comes nearest to this old-world, yet imperishable, ideal of the Jewish sages. He says: “I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out on a pleasant walk, for a midnight ramble, for a friendly meeting, for a solved problem. Why have we none for books, those spiritual repasts–a grace before Milton,–a grace before Shakespeare,–a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen?” The Jewish ritual could have supplied Lamb with several of these graces.

It will, I hope, now be seen why in speaking on the solace of books I have said so little about consolation. It pains me to hear books praised as a relief from worldly cares, to hear the library likened to an asylum for broken spirits. I have never been an admirer of BoŰthius. His “Consolations of Philosophy” have always been influential and popular, but I like better the first famous English translator than the original Latin author. BoŰthius wrote in the sixth century as a fallen man, as one to whom philosophy came in lieu of the mundane glory which he had once possessed, and had now lost. But Alfred the Great turned the “Consolations” into English at the moment of his greatest power. He translated it in the year 886, when king on a secure throne; in his brightest days, when the Danish clouds had cleared. Sorrow has often produced great books, great psalms, to which the sorrowful heart turns for solace. But in the truest sense the Shechinah rests on man only in his joy, when he has so attuned his life that misfortune is but another name for good fortune. He must have learned to endure before he seeks the solace of communion with the souls of the great, with the soul of God. Very saddening it is to note how often men have turned to books because life has no other good. The real book-lover goes to his books when life is fullest of other joys, when his life is richest in its manifold happiness. Then he adds the crown of joy to his other joys, and finds the highest happiness.

I do not like to think of the circumstances under which Sir Thomas Bodley went to Oxford to found his famous library. Not till his diplomatic career was a failure, not till Elizabeth’s smiles had darkened into frowns, did he set up his staff at the library door. But Bodley rather mistook himself. As a lad the library had been his joy, and when he was abroad, at the summit of his public fame, he turned his diplomatic missions to account by collecting books and laying the foundation of his future munificence. I even think that no lover of books ever loved them so well in his adversity as in his prosperity. Another view was held by Don Isaac Abarbanel, the famous Jewish statesman and litterateur. Under Alfonso V, of Portugal, and other rulers, he attained high place, but was brought low by the Inquisition, and shared in the expulsion of his brethren. He writes in one of his letters: “The whole time I lived in the courts and palaces of kings, occupied in their service, I had no leisure to read or write books. My days were spent in vain ambitions, seeking after wealth and honor. Now that my wealth is gone, and honor has become exiled from Israel; now that I am a vagabond and a wanderer on the earth, and I have no money: now, I have returned to seek the book of God, as it is said, [Hebrew: cheth-samech-vav-resh-yod mem-cheth-samech-resh-aleph vav-hey-chaf-yod qof-tav-nun-yod], ’He is in sore need, therefore he studies.’”

This is witty, but it is not wise. Fortunately, it is not quite true; Abarbanel does little justice to himself in this passage, for elsewhere (in the preface to his Commentary on Kings) he draws a very different picture of his life in his brilliant court days. “My house,” he says, “was an assembly place for the wise ... in my abode and within my walls were wealth and fame for the Torah and for those made great in its lore.” Naturally, the active statesman had less leisure for his books than the exiled, fallen minister.

So, too, with an earlier Jewish writer, Saadia. No sadder title was ever chosen for a work than his Sefer ha-Galui–"Book of the Exiled.” It is beyond our province to enter into his career, full of stress and storm. Between 933 and 937, driven from power, he retired to his library at Bagdad, just as Cincinnatus withdrew to his farm when Rome no longer needed him. During his retirement Saadia’s best books were written. Why? Graetz tells us that “Saadia was still under the ban of excommunication. He had, therefore, no other sphere of action than that of an author.” This is pitiful; but, again, it is not altogether true. Saadia’s whole career was that of active authorship, when in power and out of power, as a boy, in middle life, in age: his constant thought was the service of truth, in so far as literature can serve it, and one may well think that he felt that the Crown of the Law was better worth wearing in prosperity, when he chose it out of other crowns, than in adversity, when it was the only crown within his reach. It was thus that King Solomon chose.

So, in speaking of the solace of books, I have ventured to employ “solace" in an old, unusual sense. “Solace” has many meanings. It means “comfort in sorrow,” and in Scotch law it denotes a compensation for wounded feelings, solatium, moral and intellectual damages in short. But in Chaucer and Spenser, “solace” is sometimes used as a synonym for joy and sweet exhilaration. This is an obsolete use, but let me hope that the thing is not obsolete. For one must go to his books for solace, not in mourning garb, but in gayest attire–to a wedding, not to a funeral. When John Clare wrote,

  I read in books for happiness,
  But books mistake the way to joy,

he read for what he ought to have brought, and thus he failed to find his goal. The library has been beautifully termed the “bridal chamber of the mind.” So, too, the Apocrypha puts it in the Wisdom of Solomon:

  Wisdom is radiant....
  Her I loved and sought out from my youth,
  And I sought to take her for my bride,
  And I became enamored of her beauty.

       *       *       *       *       *

  When I am come into my house, I shall find rest with her,
  For converse with her hath no bitterness,
  And to live with her hath no pain.

       *       *       *       *       *

  O God of the fathers, ...
  Give me wisdom, that sitteth by Thee on Thy throne.

Continue...

Preface  •  “The Book of Delight”  •  A Visit to Hebron  •  The Solace of Books  •  Medieval Wayfaring  •  The Fox’s Heart  •  “Marriages Are Made in Heaven”  •  Hebrew Love Songs  •  A Handful of Curiosities  •  Notes