Such Quaint Olden Times

I recently read Holbrook Jackson’s The Fear of Books. I had bought the book over two years ago, based on the title alone (what a silly thing to do) expecting a book that would explore either a) the psychology behind bibliophobia or b) an analysis of cultural rejection of books (exemplified by Nazi book burnings.) It did cover such material, but I was confused that it was ignoring many examples I would have expected.  Then I realized that this book was written in 1932.  There were other things that should have tipped me off, like some of the awkward language and punctuation compared to what a contemporary writer would use.

There were two sections that struck me as being particularly emblematic of their times.

  1. Several paragraphs into the section titled Women and the Fear of Books there is this nugget: “A woman in a library is a woman out of her frame.  She brings grace, smiles, perfumes, and suchlike charms, which soften the austerity of a library with exquisite sweetness, and gentillesse exquise; but beware, she is no more to be trusted than une guenon familière, a domestic monkey.  Penez garde of her whims, caprices; let he not handle precious prints, bindings, etc.: ce serait un désastre!” This comes from a book titled Les Zigzags d’un Curieux by Octave Uzanne.  I can’t imagine anyone today could suggest that women were simply incapable of appreciating books because of their femininity without being raked over the coals.  And I don’t even mean that figuratively.
  2.  In the next section of the book, Remedies Considered, Jackson addresses peoples’ apprehension of books stemming from the constant influx of material. This quote, from Arthur Symons, was especially amusing to me: “The invention of printing helped to destroy literature.  Scribes, and memories not yet spoilt by over cramming, preserved all the literature that was worth preserving, because books that had to be remembered by heart, or copied with slow, elaborate penmanship, were not thrown away on people who did not want them, but remained in the hands of people with taste.” (From Studies in Prose and Verse) This reminds me of people who contend that e-readers are not real reading for some intangible, borderline fetishistic reason.

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