gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Bookaneering and Other Pursuits

“Bookaneering and Other Pursuits: Adventures with a Duke in a Library, or—Books Will Have Bindings”, The Columbia Varsity, volume 7, number 1 (November 1925), pages 9, 26.

Jacques Barzun made his Columbia Varsity debut as a junior in the issue pictured above. The campus literary magazine favored a light tone and “great variety.” JB obliges with a swashbuckling title that heralds royalty, though the titled gentleman may well be the Duke of Bilgewater. His books are JB’s real concern. But first Jacques tries on insouciance regarding his article:

“The privileges of those essays which are destined to irretrievable oblivion after each (if any) reader’s perusal, are derived from their very irresponsibility,—the essays’ not the reader’s.  In the first place one can indulge an appetite for luscious, soul-satisfying titles,—even punniform,—which need have no reference whatever to what follows.”

After a couple of amusing paragraphs along similar lines, Jacques sets the stage.  Whether actual or imagined, the situation is simply put:  “I have a friend.  He is a lord.  He has books.  He has bought a house in this country (U.S.A.).  These books were shipped to his new residence.  They arrived.  Such are the facts, stated in syllabus form, which led up to the tragedy.

“Previous to the arrival of the books, I had received a cable: ‘Please help dis-crate books.’  Besides furnishing me with a new proof of the difference between English as spoken in the British Isles and as swallowed here (where, as everyone knows, we would have used the word ‘desecrate’) it gave me also an opportunity to exercise my favorite pastime which is,—don’t jump,—bookaneering, or more simply, the surreptitious removal of printed volumes appurtenant to a person or persons not myself.”

The young man recounts the dirty unpacking, the stacks of books piled on the floor, the recessed bookcases that line the walls, and compares the task ahead to stocking the shelves in “one of our modern grocery stores.”  Then he reports something odd:

“[F]or practically every leather-bound hand-tooled book in the show cases, my lord possesses (or used to, before I met him) a volume of identical aspect and, when in his possession, decidedly not pock-marked, dog-eared or broken-backed.

“Knowledge of this duplication gave me a clue to the method of approach we were about to use in the engineering feat contemplated. It was, briefly, that instead of sorting by subject or category or even native tongue (if a book may be said to have a tongue in addition to a back), we were to arrange them with a view to decorative effect by size, color, plumpness and quality of binding,—a process certainly to be condemned by any highminded bookaneer ….”  A rationale for pilfering merely ornamental volumes occurs to the juvenile Jacques, along with a droll proposal for government action:   “In fact, the whole scheme of a library for parade purposes which seems to obtain pretty generally in all classes, ought to be prohibited by law or taxed on the basis of total of pages lying fallow.”

Could it be that The Great Gatsby (published in April that year) inspired Barzun’s illiterary lord?  Whether figment or fact, the Duke and his library are the object of Jacques’ deprecating wit, though the young critic was not relentless:  “One bright spot (figuratively) relieved this ghostly selection: Johnson’s Dictionary.”

Another Barzun preference gives proof that Pascal’s esprit de géométrie works in Jacques’ mind in tandem with his favored finesse:

“Inside the cover of each book were pasted equidistant from every corner (and therefore bisected twice by diagonals drawn perpendicular to each other and making equal angles with the bases), were affixed, I say, those relics of a barbarous age of property: bookplates, as if a book belonged in any sense of the word to anyone but the author and the reader, neither of which his lordship ever was.”

Skipping again, alas, through the large-format magazine’s JB essay of more than four columns to his summing up (nota bene, item 6 that clarifies Bookaneer Barzun’s ethics):

“I think this about concludes, or I might say, finishes us in the eyes of any intelligent reader who will at once deduce a moral from this ‘faithfulle narrative.’  For purposes of reference and use in the primary schools by children unacquainted with any foreign language, it has been thought advisable by the editors to list … the various aspects of a single moral: 
(1) Books should be read and not bound.
(2) No shelf should stand higher than 5 ft. 10 1/2 in. from the floor.
(3) Complete sets should be broken up into their constituent elements.
(4) Old books as such should be sold to maniacs or sent to the British Museum,—for a consideration.
(5) Book plates should be of a blank and spotless white.
(6) Bookaneering is one of the biggest and noblest manifestations of the social conscience, and as such should take place only in the mind of the individual.
(7) The foregoing admonitions apply to corporations, boroughs, asylums, or institutions of learning, as well as to private persons.”

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