"'Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fail." -- William Shakespeare
I go into used bookstores with the express purpose in mind of not finding any but the rarest, most irresistible object, of avoiding all such commonplace temptations as more handsome editions of books I own, of sets I haven't need of or room for, of new books I might otherwise read without cost by borrowing them from the stock of the bookstore where I work. I may finger a pretty little volume of Addison's essays from The Spectator, and think how well it would fit in a pocket, how pretty it is, how well made and nicely printed, how cheap it is, but I remember the set of the complete Spectator I bought some years ago, how all four sturdy green volumes greet me happily on the case every night as I turn the first corner of the hall on my way to my desk and that I've only to pause long enough to pluck a volume up as I pass to have with me all of Addison & Steele, at least from the period of The Spectator, in my hand. While it is true that these books I already own are not so simple to slip in a pocket or carry on a bus, they have the advantage of being already paid for, of being owned, familiar and available. I pass on. Likewise there are individual books by Henry James, in handsome editions that I might more easily read than the ever expanding selection from the Library of America I've been collecting for years, but these too I try very hard not to buy, counting on a collection some day to be complete so long as a new volume is added now and again to my Library of America edition. I have purchased a copy of Wings of a Dove or Portrait of a Lady with the express purpose of giving them as gifts and then found myself reading these again just because there was a new copy in my hand, because there might be some introduction I did not otherwise know of, or simply for the pleasure of rereading a book between covers new to me, but I hope I have remembered why these books were bought and passed them on as I'd intended.
As to what constitutes the irresistible for me nowadays, I can confidently say, I have no idea until I happen on it. Price still exercises some restraint. This is the reason I avoid those temples of antiquarian treasure, like Wessel and Lieberman here in Seattle, wherein may be found such unlooked for necessities as a complete set of Ronald Firbank, priced well out of possibility for the likes of me. I used to visit that set nearly every time I was downtown, wandering into the shop and pretending to be glancing casually around me for minutes at a time, before walking up the narrow ramp to pet those books that really wanted no other owner, I was convinced, else why their siren song? But common sense, the little of it I've ever had, told me that not in my working lifetime would I ever have the audacity to claim the Firbank at the price marked. It may be a fair price, I trust the booksellers who marked it so, but it would not be fair to either my creditors or my conscience to take on the debt those book would bring with them into my collection. So instead, for years, I visited. I suppose some secret hope of a reduction in price was harbored in my silly brain, but none ever came. Why should it have? The kind of queen who can, with impunity, buy Firbank bound in leather deserves such things more than I. I doubt such a one would ever think to mare their pristine value by reading them as I have my more pedestrian New Directions editions. Such fine things deserve better than paper-covered pine shelves in a suburban house -- they ought to be shelved and dusted, unread and properly catalogued, in some private collection willed to some ungrateful "nephew" inheriting a penthouse in a fabulous New York skyscraper, sold from thence at auction, still unread, to some other fabulous old party, and so on, in this way preserved, the pages uncut, the bindings pristine, until the end of recorded time.
What draws me to spend even as much as fifty dollars, as I did just today, are not such beautiful examples of the bookbinder's art -- none of which are to be had for fifty bucks nowadays I might add -- but more homely things, no less rare in the kind of bookstore I may actually shop, books I still have no immediate need of but am unlikely to see again for so good a price. Johnsonian Miscellanies, edited by George Birkbeck Hill, D. C. L., LL. D., in two volumes, originally published in 1897, and reprinted by the old Barnes & Noble in 1970, caught me out today. I own already Mrs. Thrale's "Anecdotes" in a pretty volume, and a book of Johnson's Prayers & Meditations, from the Yale edition, but in these two rather stolid looking volumes in plain brown cloth from 1897 by way of 1970, there are, in addition, so many wonderful things I am unlikely otherwise to own, how could I not spend the money, having it or not, and add them to my library?
If one reads both Thrale and Boswell, or any modern biography of the Doctor for that matter, the name of George Birkbeck Hill must eventually become familiar. He was of that noble school of Victorian editors who gave their considerable talents to collecting and preserving the best of everything that came before, and in so doing, and in doing it so well, created the best kind of unoriginal literature; never boring or badly made up, but lovingly, respectfully, and expertly produced editions, unrivaled since, of the otherwise neglected or forgotten wonders. Reynolds' written sketches, for instance, are always quoted by biographers of Johnson, but where else am I likely to ever have them as beautifully annotated and complete as they are here? And so many, many wonderful things, otherwise unknown to me, or known only in a fragmentary way from quotation, are herein whole, well ordered, cleanly printed and soundly bound together in two fat, satisfying volumes.
If, bringing them back with me from lunch, it was not entirely possible to communicate to my coworkers the full extent of my pleasure in them, or how absolutely necessary it was that I own them at such a good price, I should think at least anyone looking at my happiness might appreciate how lucky I was today. I found in these two volumes, whole days together with a dear friend I might otherwise never have heard in just these conversations. What failure is there in that? Triumph more like. At least until the bill comes. But I'll think about that later.
You were saying, Sir?