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CONFESSIONS OF A
BOOK-LOVER

BY

MAURICE FRANCIS EGAN

[Illustration]

GARDEN CITY NEW YORK

DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY

1922




COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY

DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION
INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES

AT

THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.




IN MEMORY OF

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

A MAN OF ACTION
IN LOVE WITH BOOKS




CONTENTS


CHAPTER PAGE

I. MY BOYHOOD READING 1
Early Recollections.
The Bible.
Essays and Essayists.

II. POETS AND POETRY 76
France--Of Maurice de Guérin.
Dante.
English and American Verse.

III. CERTAIN NOVELISTS 134

IV. LETTERS, BIOGRAPHIES, AND MEMOIRS 156

V. BOOKS AT RANDOM 205




CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK-LOVER




CHAPTER I

MY BOYHOOD READING

_Early Recollections_


To get the best out of books, I am convinced that you must begin to love
these perennial friends very early in life. It is the only way to know
all their "curves," all those little shadows of expression and small
lights. There is a glamour which you never _see_ if you begin to read
with a serious intention late in life, when questions of technique and
grammar and mere words begin to seem too important.

Then you have become too critical to feel through all Fenimore Cooper's
verbiage the real lakes and woods, or the wild fervour of romance
beneath dear Sir Walter's mat of words. You lose the unreclaimable
flavour of books. A friend you may irretrievably lose when you lose a
friend--if you are so deadly unfortunate as to lose a friend--for even
the memories of him are embittered; but no great author can ever have
done anything that will make the book you love less precious to you.

The new school of pedagogical thought disapproves, I know, of
miscellaneous reading, and no modern moralist will agree with Madame de
Sévigné that "bad books are better than no books at all"; but Madame de
Sévigné may have meant books written in a bad style, or feeble books,
and not books bad in the moral sense. However, I must confess that when
I was young, I read several books which I was told afterward were very
bad indeed. But I did not find this out until somebody told me! The
youthful mind must possess something of the quality attributed to a
duck's back! I recall that once "The Confessions of Rousseau" was
snatched suddenly away from me by a careful mother just as I had begun
to think that Jean Jacques was a very interesting man and almost as
queer as some of the people I knew. I believe that if I had been allowed
to finish the book, it would have become by some mental chemical process
a very edifying criticism of life.

"Tom Jones" I found in an attic and I was allowed to read it by a pious
aunt, whom I was visiting, because she mixed it up with "Tom Brown of
Rugby"; but I found it even more tiresome than "Eric, or Little by
Little," for which I dropped it. I remember, too, that I was rather
shocked by some things written in the Old Testament; and I retorted to
my aunt's pronouncement that she considered "the 'Arabian Nights' a
dangerous book," by saying that the Old Testament was the worst book I
had ever read; but I supposed "people had put something into it when God
wasn't looking." She sent me home.

At home, I was permitted to read only the New Testament. On winter
Sunday afternoons, when there was nothing else to do, I became sincerely
attached to the Acts of the Apostles. And I came to the conclusion that
nobody could tell a short story as well as Our Lord Himself. The
Centurion was one of my favourite characters. He seemed to be such a
good soldier; and his plea, "Lord, I am not worthy," flashes across my
mental vision every day of my life.

In the Catholic churches, a part of the Gospel is read every Sunday, and
carefully interpreted. This always interested me because I knew in
advance what the priest was going to read. Most of the children of my
acquaintance were taught their Scriptures through the International
Sunday-school lessons, and seemed to me to be submerged in the geography
of Palestine and other tiresome details. For me, reading as I did, the
whole of the New Testament was radiant with interest, a frankly human
interest. There were many passages that I did not pretend to understand,
sometimes because the English was obscure or archaic, and sometimes
because my mind was not equal to it or my knowledge too small. Whatever
may be the opinion of other people, mine is that the reading of the New
Testament in the simplicity of childhood, with the flower of intuition
not yet blighted, is one of the most beautiful of mental experiences. In
my own case, it gave a glow to life; it caused me to distinguish between
truth and fairy tales, between fact and fiction--and this is often very
difficult for an imaginative child.

This kind of reading implies leisure and the absence of distraction.
Unhappily, much leisure does not seem to be left for the modern child.
The unhappy creature is even told that there will be "something in
Heaven for children to do!" As to distractions, the modern child is
surrounded by them; and it appears to be one of the main intentions of
the present system of instruction not to leave to a child any moments of
leisure for the indulgence of the imagination. But I am not offering the
example of my childhood for imitation by the modern parents.

Nevertheless, it had great consolations. There were no "movies" in those
days, and the theatre was only occasionally permitted; but on long
afternoons, after you had learned to read, you might lose yourself in
"The Scottish Chiefs" to your heart's content. It seems to me that the
beauty of this fashion of leisurely reading was that you had time to
visualize everything, and you felt the dramatic moments so keenly, that
a sense of unreality never obtruded itself at the wrong time. It was not
necessary for you to be told that Helen Mar was beautiful. It was only
necessary for her to say, in tones so entrancing that you heard them,
"My Wallace!" to know that she was the loveliest person in all Scotland.
But "The Scottish Chiefs" required the leisure of long holiday
afternoons, especially as the copy I read had been so misused that I
had to spend precious half hours in putting the pages together. It was
worth the trouble, however.

Before I could read, I was compelled on rainy days to sit at my mother's
knee and listen to what _she_ read. I am happy to say that she never
read children's books. Nothing was ever adapted to my youthful
misunderstanding. She read aloud what she liked to read, and she never
considered whether I liked it or not. It was a method of discipline. At
first, I looked drearily out at the soggy city street, in which rivulets
of melted snow made any exercise, suitable to my age, impossible. There
is nothing so hopeless for a child as an afternoon in a city when the
heavy snows begin to melt. My mother, however, was altogether regardless
of what happened outside of the house. At two o'clock precisely--after
the manner of the King in William Morris's "Earthly Paradise"--she waved
her wand. After that, all that I was expected to do was to make no
noise.

In this way I became acquainted with "The Virginians," then running in
_Harper's Magazine_, with "Adam Bede" and "As You Like It" and "Richard
III." and "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Valentine
Vox"--why "Valentine Vox?"--and other volumes when I should have been
listening to "Alice in Wonderland." But when I came, in turn, to "Alice
in Wonderland," I found Alice's rather dull in comparison with the
adventures of the Warrington brothers. And Thackeray's picture of Gumbo
carrying in the soup tureen! To have listened to Rebecca's description
of the great fight in "Ivanhoe," to have lived through the tournament of
Ashby de la Zouche, was a poor preparation for the vagaries of the queer
creatures that surrounded the inimitable Alice.

There appeared to be no children's books in the library to which we had
access. It never seemed to me that "Robinson Crusoe" or "Gulliver's
Travels" or "Swiss Family Robinson" were children's books; they were not
so treated by my mother, and I remember, as a small boy, going up to
Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, with divine eagerness, to buy the
latest number of a Dickens serial. I think the name of the shop--the
shop of Paradise--which sold these books was called Ashburnham's. It may
be asked how the episode in "Adam Bede" of Hetty and that of "little
Em'ly" in Dickens struck the child mind. As I remember, the child mind
was awed and impressed, by a sense of horror, probably occasioned as
much by the force of the style, by the suggestions of an unknown terror,
as by any facts which a child could grasp.

It was a curious thing that my mother, who had remarkably good taste in
literature, admired Mrs. Henry Wood extravagantly. She also admired
Queen Victoria. She never read "East Lynne" aloud, because, I gathered,
she considered it "improper"; and Miss Braddon's "Lady Audley's Secret"
came under the same ban, though I heard it talked of frequently. It was
difficult to discover where my mother drew the line between what was
"proper" and what was "not proper." Shakespeare she seemed to regard as
eminently proper, and, I noticed, hesitated and mumbled only when she
came to certain parts of Ophelia's song. It seems strange now that I
never rated Mrs. Henry Wood's novels with those of George Eliot or
Thackeray or Dickens. There seemed to be some imperceptible difference
which my mother never explained, but which I, instinctively, understood;
and when Anthony Trollope's "Orley Farm" was read, I placed him above
Mrs. Henry Wood, but not on an equality with Dickens or Thackeray.

_Harper's Magazine_, in those days, contained great treasure! There, for
instance, were the delightful articles by Porte Crayon--General
Strothers, I think.



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