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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

Anarchy In A Library

Title:     Anarchy In A Library
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]


Having occasion recently to re-arrange my books, they lay in bewildering jumbled heaps upon my study floor; and, having in vain puzzled over this plan and that which should give the little collection a continuity such as it had never attained before, I at length gave it up in despair, and sat, with my head in my hands, hopeless. Presently I seemed to hear small voices talking in whispers, a curious papery tone, like the fluttering of leaves, and listening I heard distinctly these words:--'The great era of universal equality and redistribution has dawned at last. No one book shall any longer claim more shelf than another, no book shall be taller or thicker than another. The age of folios and quartos is past, and the Age of the Universal Octavo has dawned.'

Looking up, I saw that the voice was that of a shabby, but perky, octavo, which I had forgotten I ever possessed, since the day when some mistaken charity had prompted me to rescue it from the threepenny box and give it a good home in a respectable family of books. Certainly, it had so far filled the humble position of a shelf-liner, and its accidental elevation into daylight on the top of a prostrate folio had evidently turned its head. It was now doing its best to disseminate socialistic principles among the set of scurvy octavos and duodecimos in its neighbourhood.

'Why should we choke with dust in the dark there,' it continued, 'that these splendid creatures should glitter all day in the sunshine, and get all the firelight of an evening? We were born to be read as much as they, born to enjoy our share of the good things of this world as much as my Lord Folio, as much as any Honourable Quarto, or fashionable Large Paper. My Brothers, the hour has come: will you strike now or never, exact your rights as free-born books, or will you go back to be shelf-liners as before?'

[Loud cries of 'No! no! we won't,' here encouraged the speaker.]

'Strike now, and the book unborn shall bless you. Miss this golden opportunity, and the cause we serve will be delayed another hundred editions.'

At this point a great folio that had for some time been leaning threateningly, like a slab at Stonehenge, above the speaker, suddenly fell and silenced him; but he had not spoken in vain, and from various sets of books about the room I heard the voices of excited agitators taking up his words. Then an idea struck me. I was, as I told you, heartily sick of my task of arrangement. Here seemed an opportunity.

'Look here,' I said,'you shall have it all to yourselves. I resign, I abdicate. You shall arrange yourselves as you please, but be quick about it, and let there be as little bloodshed as possible'

With that there arose such a hubbub as was never before heard in a quiet book-room, not even during that famous battle of the St. James's Library in 1697; and conspicuous among the noises was a strange crowing sound as of young cocks, which I was at a loss to understand, till I bethought me how Mentzelius, long ago, sitting in the quiet of his library, had heard the bookworm 'crow like a cock unto his mate.' On looking I saw that the insurgents had indeed pressed into their service a certain politic body of bookworms as joyous heralds, whom I had never suspected of inhabiting my books at all--though, indeed, such hidden creatures do crawl out of their corners in times of upheaval.

It was long before I could disentangle individual voices from the wild chaos of strident theories that surrounded me. But at last there was silence, as one bilious-looking vellum book, old enough to have known better, had evidently caught the ear of the assembled multitudes; and then I understood that the movement had already found its Robespierre. It was clear from his words that the universal gospel of equality, so beautifully expatiated upon before the revolution, had had reference only to those who were already on an equality of that low estate which fears no fall. The only equality now offered to books above the rank of octavo was that of death, which, philosophers have long assured us, makes all men equal, by a short and simple method. There was but one other way--that the quartos should consent to be cut in two, and the folios quartered; but that, alas! meant death no less, for that which alone is of worth in both books and men, the soul, would be no more. So, as it seemed they must die either way, all the condemned chose death before dishonour. Several distinguished folios who, in a quixotism of heart, had flirted with the socialistic leaders when their schemes were but propaganda, and equality had not yet been so rigorously defined, now bitterly repented their folly, and did their best in heading a rally against their foes. That, however, was soon quelled, and but hastened their doom.

'To the guillotine with them!' cried the bilious little octavo, and then I saw that my tobacco-cutter had been extemporised into the deadly engine.

But, hereupon, a voice of humour found hearing, that of a stout 32mo, evidently a philosopher.

'Why shed blood?' he said, 'I have a better plan. Stature is no mark of superiority, but usually the reverse. The mind's the standard of the man. In the world of men the tallest and handsomest are made into servants, and called flunkies, and these wait upon the small men, who have all the money, which among men corresponds to brains among books. Why shouldn't we take a hint from this custom, and turn these tall gaudy gentlemen into our servants, for which all their gilt and fine clothes have already provided them with livery? Ho! Sirrah Folio, come and turn my page!'

But this Lord Folio haughtily refused to do, and, consequently, being too stout to turn his own pages, the little 32mo could say no more. His proposal, though it tickled a few, found no great favour. It was generally agreed that humour had no place in the discussion of a serious question. Another speaker advocated the retention of the condemned as ornaments of the state, but he was very speedily overruled. Was not that the shallow excuse by which they had hung on for ever so long? No, that was quite worn out.

The main question was further obstructed by many outbursts of individualism. Certain self-contained books wished to be left to themselves, and have no part in the social scheme, unless in the event of a return to monarchy, when, they intimated, they might be eligible for election. This, one could see, was the secret hope of all the speakers; and you would have laughed could you have heard what inflated opinions some of them had of their own importance--especially two or three of the minor poets. Then, again, many sentimental demands, quite unforeseen, added to the general anarchy. Collected editions, which had long groaned in the bondage of an arbitrary relationship, saw an opportunity in the general overturn to break away from their sets and join their natural fellows. Sex was naturally the most unruly element of all. Volumes that had waited edition after edition for each other, yearning across the shelves, felt their time had come at last, and leapt into each other's arms. It was with no avail that a distress minute was passed by The Hundred Thousand Committee (a somewhat unworkable body) that henceforth sex was to be a function exercised absolutely for the good of the state: tattered poets were to be seen wildly proclaiming a different doctrine.

Such eccentric attachments as a volume of _The Essays of Elia_ for Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, were especially troublesome; while the explosion caused by the accidental contact of that same unruly Elia with a modern reprint of _The Anatomy of Melancholy_, which (he said) he never could tolerate, proved the last straw to the Committee of the Hundred Thousand, who immediately resigned their offices in anger and despair. Thereupon, tenfold chaos once more returning, I thought it time to interfere. The Doctrine of Equality was evidently a failure--among books, at any rate. So I savagely fell to, and threw the books back again into their immemorial places, and the cause of freedom in 'The City of Books' sleeps for another hundred editions.

Only I placed Elia next to the Duchess, because he was a human fellow, and had no theories.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Anarchy In A Library