April 19, 2022

“Old Books Discussed”—ancient article animates attention


A headline to an essay about books published in the Brooklyn Citizen in August 1890.

We were once again taking a brief break from the page proofs—they will never end!—by scrolling through the digital resources available via the Brooklyn Public Library—our new favorite institution!—when we unearthed an article titled “Old Books Discussed,” from the Brooklyn Citizen of August 31, 1890.

Situating the bookstore as a place where “great writers and mediocre ones” sit “side by side,” the article claims that “the old bookstore is the abode of harmony.” Warming to his theme, the author — who writes under the name “The Curio” — hails the store as

the crucible in which all contraries are melted and blended together. Here all the old swords are broken. The old bookstore is a tomb and a cradle where reason, ambition, and vanity, the parents of so many volumes, have cast away their offspring … the silent teachers of the world are here, their infirmities forgotten and forgiven, all that was divine in them still potent as ever, each a prophet and the whole an emblem of the millennium.

Well … OK then! We read on, feeling slightly alarmed. The bookstore “is surely a place,” continues the writer, “that ought to be frequented by the hurrying, worrying, nerve-racked men of commercial America,” for if they were “to spend at least one hour daily in the old book-store after breakfast” they would emerge “as cool as cucumbers” with “happy results from a business point of view.Humph, says we. The idea of books as a sort of performance-enhancing palliative, a kind of spiritual lubricant for the wheels of capitalism, does not sit well with us! We read on, and were somewhat mollified to encounter this rather florid bit of phrasemaking:

Many a poor, pale youth, with the bright eye and shrinking demeanor of budding genius has found in the old bookman a father, and in his store a nursery for their genius.

Not sure about “the shrinking demeanor of budding genius” — sounds rather shifty! — but this is more our sort of tune! The writer then goes on to decry the advent of overt commercialism, of “the smart man who sells books to-day, as herrings are sold,” and finally laments that in Brooklyn “rents have risen so high that room cannot be afforded to a collection of old books as is needed as to make a rough, useful bookstore that can reach and be reached by working men.” I guess some things never change!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.