A young man, looking to find something unusual and out of print, as a gift for his father, was in the store today and was brought by the desk for suggestions. This was a good looking fellow, with a shining face full of smiles that met every question with an honest answer, but we had some difficulty at first, dear J. and I, defining just what it was he might find that would suit. His father, it seems, is a man of many interests and accomplishments, which tended to complicate rather than simplify our search. The elder man reads widely, so that under nearly every head we suggested the answer came back "yes": "yes," he reads fiction; literary, popular, old and new, and yes he reads biographies; of the famous, the infamous, the obscure, and "yes," he loves music, and sailing, and travel, and so on. The son had heard of our Espresso Book Machine on the recent radio broadcast and intrigued by the possibility of some two million titles made available again by means of that remarkable device, he was determined to find something, anything, that his father was unlikely to already know. Dear J. pursued the travelers, first to one continent and then another across the centuries, and launched a ship or two as well, while I tried first one tune after another, trying to hit on a a favorite composer, perhaps in an old memoir, or in correspondence.
Now I should just say, had our customer been someone other than the very nice young man that he is, I believe sincerely that neither my coworker nor I would have been any less eager to help. I'm quite sure of that. (Here I pass carefully, remembering the snare that caught Oscar when the prosecutor noted that if one "telegraph boy" with whom Wilde had been consorting was, in Oscar's careless phrase, indeed "too ugly to be kissed," that that suggested that the others were not.) I will not speak for my friend, but I do admit that the fellow's sweetness, neatness, good manners, and the aforementioned smile may have inspired something of my own enthusiasm, but like all true booksellers, we do like a challenge, irrespective of the source, and nothing is more likely to set us busily and happily about our work than the possibility of finding something unusual or not-looked-for in the way of old books. I make this point, particularly in preemptory defense of my good coworker, not for fear of being misunderstood so much, at least in my case, as of being thought, at a blush, to conform so entirely to type as to be easily dismissed as less than serious about our work, or indecorous on the sales-floor.
Anyway, nearly every suggestion made, once it had been refined by a search of both our memories and of the EBM's listings of available titles and editions, was met with a gratifying keenness, and not a few orders. My own happiest thought came fairly late in the interaction, when I finally had the sense to ask what the fellow's father did for a living and learned that the gentleman was a doctor. Here was serendipity!
My latest purchases from Homer, our EBM, happened to be a book of letters, and another of essays, by Dr. John Brown. There have been roughly as many John Browns in this world as there have been sons of Adam, or so at least it seemed when I tried to find books by the particular John Brown I was after. Besides the militant abolitionist, and the famous Captain John Brown of Virginia, there were no less than six John Browns just in direct line down to my Scots physician and essayist, though mine was once the most famous of the lot, as a friend to Thackeray and others, and as the author of Rab and his Friends, one of the most wonderful dog stories ever written. My Doctor John Brown was the son of much respected preacher, himself something of a writer, and the son of my John Brown, was himself likewise a John Brown, and the editor of his father's letters. (You see the possibilities for confusion? I've just noticed, in fact, that the Wikipedia entry for the essayist has a portrait of the wrong Doctor John Brown to illustrate it!)
The Doctor John Brown with whom I was already acquainted and of whom I wished to read more, was an exemplary person; a beloved practitioner who spent much of his professional life treating his friends without fee, and as he seldom treated any soul in Edinburgh as less than a friend, he never made much of a living. (In one story related by his son in an introduction to some of the letters, he tells the touching and amusing story of Dr. Brown coming to an understanding with one old friend that should the good Doctor appear in the gentleman's drawing room with his hat in his hand, he came as a friend, but that if the hat was left in the hall, he appeared in a strictly professional capacity. The Doctor of course always thereafter came hat in hand until his patient, himself by then no less an elderly gentleman than the Doctor, was seen to struggle with his friend over this hat, as the sick man tried to carry it to the hall and the Doctor refused to let go of it.)
It's worth noting that John Brown was as good a son as he was a father, and that just as he wrote beautifully and affectionately of his father the minister, so the doctor's son wrote, in the collection of letters he edited and elsewhere, of his father. Hard then to find a bad John Brown, at least in this bunch.
That same goodness and kindness, tempered with an all too realistic appreciation of the limits of medical knowledge, and human and animal nature, pervades Brown's various writings. His most famous story, of the great "Rab,"is now too little read, I should think, not because there is a single sentiment in it that was not sincere and touching in it's sincerity, but because the story opens with the narrator, then just a boy, rushing with his friend to see dogs fighting in the street. That dogs should do such a thing, and boys watch them without censure, indeed with all the eager brutishness not just of the early Eighteenth Century, but with the brutishness of little boys, is something no doubt distasteful to the more delicate refinement of our day. (We will happily watch men fight still, but not dogs, never dogs, a distinction not much made in earlier days.) That Doctor Brown famously adopted one battered mutt after another from the streets of Edinburgh throughout his life, that he contributed to and publicly solicited for the creation of what was then considered a laughable idea, an animal shelter, in a "Plea for a Dog Home," and that he wrote regularly and wonderfully of all the dogs he knew in a long lifetime of companionable affection and care for the canine, counts for little nowadays. Dr. Brown's biographies of the dogs he knew and loved tell the end of each with as much affectionate bemusement as sadness; unlike the kind of dog stories we now find acceptable, Brown's dogs all die as most dogs do, one way and another, and not always in their beds before a blazing fire or in the owners arms, and of old age -- though some did and do.
Likewise, writing as a physician, and a deeply religious man, in a more uniformly religious and less medically proficient age, John Brown is wont to describe the end of life for his fellow men just as realistically, and with the same honest helplessness and regret, as he writes of life in general. This too does not seem to suit the times. His belief in the beneficence of God is not one I share, and like his general reticence to look beyond the walls of Edinburgh for any explanation of character, his dislike of vulgarity of any kind, and his acceptance of violence, social inequality, poverty and ignorance as both regrettable and endemic to nature, I do not doubt, that piety and all else, good and bad, including a tendency, for all his good humor, to a sometimes crippling melancholy, in other words, the very qualities that made him such an exemplary Victorian in so many ways, have all contributed to the fading away of his reputation and his readership in the more than one hundred years since he lived and wrote.
This is very sad, and genuinely regrettable, as nothing is so sure as what is best in what was, and to deny ourselves the company of good men, and good writers, because they did not think entirely as we do now, is to lose more in real pleasure and good company than we stand to gain in the way of perfect equanimity by having only our own assumptions entirely confirmed by what we read. It seems too obvious a thing to say, but perhaps it isn't, so I'll try to say it plainly by way of this example: I need not be a 19th Century Scot, a doctor, a dog-lover or a Presbyterian to love John Brown, and neither need you be anything like me to see that that's true. All a new reader of John Brown need know about him, I should think, is that he is good, in nearly every sense of the word of which I can think.
So today I added Rab and His Friends to the son's list of good books for his father, the doctor. Of all the books we suggested, and of all the books being printed for him on the EBM tomorrow morning, that is the one I hope the doctor will read first, and like best. I can think of few gifts better suited to the purpose, which, after all, is for the son to honor his father. John Brown is just the man.