On Tuesday afternoon I stopped by a secondhand bookstore where I found a row of dull-red George Meredith hardbacks the size of my hand - my hand with the fingers spread out very slightly - not right out, and not held together, but just relaxed and settled like a spider. Some of them had covers raised in vertical hard pinstriped ridges; these ones made a zipping noise when I ran a fingernail across the stripes. I bought The Shaving of Shagpat and went home. After that, a wave of covetousness, because I wished I'd bought The Egoist as well.
My Shagpat opens with this dedication.
G. Nora Young
George D. [?] Young
"Age cannot wither her,
nor custom stale
her infinite variety."
"Antony & Cleopatra"
Why covetous? I'd never read Meredith before, I didn't know if I'd like him or hate him, so why covetous? The books were attractive, but there were other attractive books in the shop; I didn't want to buy them. The books were old, but there were other, older books there. I picked Meredith off the shelf in the first place because I'd read an essay by someone who called him a great forgotten Victorian, quoting Oscar Wilde, "His style is chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning."* Still, I'd read other books that people praised, and I hadn't liked them, I knew this, I knew this, so why did I feel that I must have Meredith? I was irritable the next morning, short-tempered, distracted, I kept thinking of The Egoist, I was in a knot of anxiety because I was afraid that someone else would buy it. Eventually I went back and picked up the set, carried them around the shop, thought about putting them back on the shelf, didn't: paid for them - not only The Egoist but Beauchamp's Career, Diana of the Crossways, Rhoda Fleming, and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. Once I had them in my hands I felt calm. The covetousness had been switched off as suddenly as a light.
I've seen people write about this kind of behaviour as if it's laudable, beautiful, joyous, exciting - I'm a bookaholic! - I must have books! - I love books! - the books are falling off my shelves yet I buy more! - books books books! - but mine was a barbaric compulsiveness, reason couldn't budge it. I know that if this had been a collection of mismatched editions, some modern paperbacks, some older books, one from the 1930s, let's say, and one from 1900, a TV-tie-in from the 1990s, a Signet Classics edition with the smudged-looking Signet cover, I might have bought The Egoist out of curiosity, remembering that it was his most famous book, but the rest wouldn't have seemed interesting. But I knew in the shop that if I left one behind I would fret over it. It was as if there was a charm over the books, marked out by the boundary line of George or G. Nora Young's signatures inside the covers.** I'd been reading about this kind of spell in the Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton identified love as a cause of melancholy, and spells as one cause of love, telling us that Charles the Great once fell in love with a woman "of mean favour and condition" because she kept a magic ring in her mouth.
The bishop went hastily to the [woman's] carcass, and took a small ring thence; upon the removal the emperor abhorred the corpse, and, instead of it, fell as furiously in love with the bishop.
Eugene Field in his little Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, makes a comparison with love.
Just as a man who takes pleasure in the conquest of feminine hearts invariably finds himself at last ensnared by the very passion which he has been using simply for the gratification of his vanity, I am inclined to think that the element of vanity enters, to a degree, into every phase of book collecting; vanity is, I take it, one of the essentials to a well-balanced character -- not a prodigious vanity, but a prudent, well-governed one.
But Fields is too whimsical for me: this inclusion of "prudent, well-governed," seems to mask the pointlessness of walking around a bookshop with half of George Meredith's oeuvre in my hands, wrestling against the feeling that I must buy these books that I might never read. I didn't feel prudent or well-governed - I felt disgusted, and closer to Burton:
"For love," (as Cyrus in Xenophon well observed) "is a mere tyranny, worse than any disease, and they that are troubled with it desire to be free and cannot, but are harder bound than if they were in iron chains."
* I don't remember who wrote this essay or where I found it. Paging through Aspects of the Novel today for a different reason I discovered that E.M. Forster thought Meredith was bad at character, that his descriptions of nature are "too fluffy and lush," that the social values in his books are "faked," but, "He is the finest contriver that English fiction has ever produced, and any lecture on plot must do homage to him."
** It looks like her first name was Gladys. The dedication inside Beauchamp's Career reads:
With love from G.D.Y.
19th Sept: 1920