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An essay by Morley Roberts

Books In The Great West

Title:     Books In The Great West
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

Since taking to writing as a profession I have lost most of the interest I had in literature as literature pure and simple. That interest gradually faded and "Art for Art's sake," in the sense the simple in studios are wont to dilate upon, touches me no more, or very, very rarely. The books I love now are those which teach me something actual about the living world; and it troubles me not at all if any of them betray no sense of beauty and lack immortal words. Their artistry is nothing, what they say is everything. So on the shelf to which I mostly resort is a book on the Himalayas; a Lloyd's Shipping Register; a little work on seamanship that every would-be second mate knows; Brown's Nautical Almanacs; a Channel Pilot; a Continental Bradshaw; many Baedekers; a Directory to the Indian Ocean and the China Seas; a big folding map of the United States; some books dealing with strategy, and some touching on medical knowledge, but principally pathology, and especially the pathology of the mind.

Yet in spite of this utilitarian bent of my thoughts there are very many books I know and love and sometimes look into because of their associations. As I cannot understand (through some mental kink which my friends are wont to jeer at) how anyone can return again and again to a book for its own sake, I do not read what I know. As soon would I go back when it is my purpose to go forward. A book should serve its turn, do its work, and become a memory. To love books for their own sake is to be crystallised before old age comes on. Only the old are entitled to love the past. The work of the young lies in the present and the future.

But still, in spite of my theories, I like to handle, if not to read, certain books which were read by me under curious and perhaps abnormal circumstances. If I do not open them it is due to a certain bashfulness, a subtle dislike of seeing myself as I was. Yet the books I read while tramping in America, such as _Sartor Resartus_, have the same attraction for me that a man may feel for a place. I carried the lucubrations of Teufelsdrockh with me as I wandered; I read them as I camped in the open upon the prairie; I slipped them into my pocket when I went shepherding in the Texan plateau south of the Panhandle.

Another book which went with me on my tramps through Minnesota and Iowa was a tiny volume of Emerson's essays. This I loved less than I loved Carlyle, and I gave it to a railroad "section boss" in the north-west of Iowa because he was kind to me. When _Sartor Resartus_ had travelled with me through the Kicking Horse Pass and over the Selkirks into British Columbia, and was sucked dry, I gave it at last to a farming Englishman who lived not far from Kamloops. I remember that in the flyleaf I kept a rough diary of the terrible week I spent in climbing through the Selkirk Range with sore and wounded feet. It is perhaps little wonder that I associate Teufelsdrockh, the mind-wanderer, with those days of my own life. And yet, unless I live to be old, I shall never read the book again.

The tramp, or traveller, or beach-comber, or general scallywag finds little time and little chance to read. And for the most part we must own he cares little for literature in any form. But I was not always wandering. I varied wandering with work, and while working at a sawmill on the coast, or close to it, in the lower Fraser River in British Columbia, I read much. In the town of New Westminster was a little public library, and I used to go thither after work if I was not too tired. But the work in a sawmill is very arduous to everyone in it, and while the winter kept away I had little energy to read. Presently, however, the season changed, and the bitter east winds came out of the mountains and fixed the river in ice and froze up our logs in the "boom," so that the saws were at last silent, and I was free to plunge among the books and roll and soak among them day and night.

The library was very much mixed. It was indeed created upon a pile of miscellaneous matter left by British troops when they were stationed on the British Columbian mainland. There was much rubbish on the shelves, but among the rubbish I found many good books. For instance, that winter I read solidly through Gibbon's _Rome_, and refreshed my early memories of Mahomet, of Alaric, and of Attila. Those who imported fresh elements into the old were even then my greatest interest. I preferred the destroyers to the destroyed, being rather on the side of the gods than on the side of Cato. Lately, as I was returning from South Africa, I tried to read Gibbon once more, and I failed. He was too classic, too stately. I fell back on Froude, and was refreshed by the manner, if not always delighted by the matter.

After emerging from the Imperial flood at the last chapter, I fell headlong into Vasari's _Lives of the Painters_, in nine volumes. Then I read Motley's _Netherlands_ and the _Rise of the Dutch Republic_, always terrible and picturesque since I had read it as a boy of eleven.

At the sawmill there was but one man with whom I could talk on any matters of intellectual interest. He was a big man from Michigan and ran the shingle saw. We often discussed what I had lately read, and went away from discussion to argument concerning philosophy and theology. He was a most lovable person; as keen as a sharpened sawtooth, and a polemic but courteous atheist. His greatest sorrow in life was that his mother, a Middle State woman of ferocious religion, could not be kept in ignorance of his principles. We argued ethics sophistically as to whether a convinced agnostic might on occasion hide what he believed.

Sometimes this friend of mine went to the library with me. He had the _penchant_ for science so common among the finer rising types of the lower classes. So I read Darwin's _Origin of Species_, and talked of it with my Michigan man. And then I took to Savage Landor and learnt some of his _Imaginary Conversations_ by heart. I could have repeated _AEsop_ and _Rhodope_.

But the one thing I for ever fell back upon was an old encyclopaedia. I should be afraid to say how much I read, but to it I owe, doubtless, a stock of extensive, if shallow, general knowledge. Certainly it appears to have influenced me to this day; for given a similar one I can wander from shipbuilding to St. Thomas Aquinas; from the Atomic Theory to the Marquis de Sade; from Kant to the building of dams; and never feel dull.

Now when I come across any of these books I am filled with a curious melancholy. The _Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire_ means more to me than to some: I hear the whirr of the buzz-saw as I open it; even in its driest page I smell the resin of fir and spruce; Locke's _Human Understanding_ recalls things no man can understand if he has not worked alongside Indians and next to Chinamen. As for Carlyle, I never hear him mentioned without seeing the mountains and glaciers of the Selkirks; in his pages is the sound of the wind and rain.

There are some novels, too, which have attractions not all their own. I remember once walking into a store at Eagle Pass Landing on the Shushwap Lake and asking for a book. I was referred to a counter covered with bearskins, and beneath the hides I unearthed a pile of novels. The one I took was Thomas Hardy's _Far from the Madding Crowd_. And another time I rode into Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California, and, while buying stores, saw Gissing's _Demos_ open in front of me. It was anonymous, but I knew it for his, and I read it as I rode slowly homeward down the Sonoma Valley, the Valley of the Seven Moons.

These are but a few of the books that are burnt into one's memory as by fire. All I remember are not literature: perhaps I should reject many with scorn at the present day; nevertheless, they have a value to me greater than the price set upon many precious folios. I propose one of these days to make a shelf among my shelves sacred to the books which I read under curious circumstances. I cannot but regret that I often had nothing to read at the most interesting times. So far as I can recollect, I got through five days' starvation in Australia without as much as a newspaper.

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Morley Roberts's essay: Books In The Great West