Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Richard Le Gallienne > Text of Philosophy Of 'Limited Editions'

An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Philosophy Of 'Limited Editions'

Title:     The Philosophy Of 'Limited Editions'
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

Why do the heathen so furiously rage against limited issues, large-papers, first editions, and the rest? For there is certainly more to be said for than against them. Broadly speaking, all such 'fads' are worthy of being encouraged, because they maintain, in some measure, the expiring dignity of letters, the mystery of books. Day by day the wonderfulness of life is becoming lost to us. The sanctities of religion are defiled, the 'fairy tales' of science have become commonplaces. Christian mysteries are debased in the streets to the sound of drum and trumpet, and the sensitive ear of the telephone is but a servile drudge 'twixt speculative bacon merchants. And Books!--those miraculous memories of high thoughts and golden moods; those magical shells tremulous with the secrets of the ocean of life; those love-letters that pass from hand to hand of a thousand lovers that never meet; those honeycombs of dreams; those orchards of knowledge; those still-beating hearts of the noble dead; those mysterious signals that beckon along the darksome pathways of the past; voices through which the myriad lispings of the earth find perfect speech; oracles through which its mysteries call like voices in moonlit woods; prisms of beauty; urns stored with all the sweets of all the summers of time; immortal nightingales that sing for ever to the rose of life: Books, Bibles--ah me! what have ye become to-day!

What, indeed, has become of that mystery of the Printed Word, of which Carlyle so movingly wrote? It has gone, it is to be feared, with those Memnonian mornings we sleep through with so determined snore, those ancient mysteries of night we forget beneath the mimic firmament of the music-hall.

Only in the lamplit closet of the bookman, the fanatic of first and fine editions, is it remembered and revered. To him alone of an Americanised, 'pirated-edition' reading world, the book remains the sacred thing it is. Therefore, he would not have it degraded by, so to say, an indiscriminate breeding, such as has also made the children of men cheap and vulgar to each other. We pity the desert rose that is born to unappreciated beauty, the unset gem that glitters on no woman's hand; but what of the book that eats its heart out in the threepenny box, the remainders that are sold ignominiously in job lots by ignorant auctioneers? Have we no feeling for them?

Over-production, in both men and shirts, is the evil of the day. The world has neither enough food, nor enough love, for the young that are born into it. We have more mouths than we can fill, and more books than we can buy. Well, the publisher and collector of limited editions aim, in their small corner, to set a limit to this careless procreation. They are literary Malthusians. The ideal world would be that in which there should be at least one lover for each woman. In the higher life of books the ideal is similar. No book should be brought into the world which is not sure of love and lodging on some comfortable shelf. If writers and publishers only gave a thought to what they are doing when they generate such large families of books, careless as the salmon with its million young, we should have no such sad alms-houses of learning as Booksellers' Row, no such melancholy distress-sales of noble authors as remainder auctions. A good book is beyond price; and it is far easier to under than over sell it. The words of the modern minor poet are as rubies, and what if his sets bring a hundred guineas?--it is more as it should be, than that any sacrilegious hand should fumble them for threepence. It recalls that golden age of which Mr. Dobson has sung, when--

'... a book was still a Book,
Where a wistful man might look,
Finding something through the whole
Beating--like a human soul';

days when for one small gilded manuscript men would willingly exchange broad manors, with pasture--lands, chases, and blowing woodlands; days when kings would send anxious embassies across the sea, burdened with rich gifts to abbot and prior, if haply gold might purchase a single poet's book.

But, says the scoffer, these limited editions and so forth foster the vile passions of competition. Well, and if they do? Is it not meet that men should strive together for such possessions? We compete for the allotments of shares in American-meat companies, we outbid each other for tickets 'to view the Royal procession,' we buffet at the gate of the football field, and enter into many another of the ignoble rivalries of peace; and are not books worth a scrimmage?--books that are all those wonderful things so poetically set forth in a preceding paragraph! Lightly earned, lightly spurned, is the sense, if not the exact phrasing, of an old proverb. There is no telling how we should value many of our possessions if they were more arduously come by: our relatives, our husbands and wives, our presentation poetry from the unpoetical, our invitation-cards to one-man shows in Bond Street, the auto-photographs of great actors, the flatteries of the unimportant, the attentions of the embarrassing: how might we not value all such treasures, if they were, so to say, restricted to a limited issue, and guaranteed 'not to be reprinted'--'plates destroyed and type distributed.'

Indeed, all nature is on the side of limited editions. Make a thing cheap, she cries from every spring hedgerow, and no one values it. When do we find the hawthorn, with its breath sweet as a milch-cow's; or the wild rose, with its exquisite attar and its petals of hollowed pearl--when do we find these decking the tables of the great? or the purple bilberry, or the boot-bright blackberry in the entremets thereof? Think what that 'common dog-rose' would bring in a limited edition! And new milk from the cow, or water from the well! Where would champagne be if those intoxicants were restricted by expensive licence, and sold in gilded bottles? What would you not pay for a ticket to see the moon rise, if nature had not improvidently made it a free entertainment; and who could afford to buy a seat at Covent Garden if Sir Augustus Harris should suddenly become sole impresario of the nightingale?

Yes, 'from scarped cliff and quarried stone,' Nature cries, 'Limit the Edition! Distribute the type!'--though in her capacity as the great publisher she has been all too prodigal of her issues, and ruinously guilty of innumerable remainders. In fact, it is by her warning rather than by her example that we must be guided in this matter. Let us not vulgarise our books, as she has done her stars and flowers. Let us, if need be, make our editions smaller and smaller, our prices increasingly 'prohibitive,' rather than that we should forget the wonder and beauty of printed dream and thought, and treat our books as somewhat less valuable than wayside weeds.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Philosophy Of 'Limited Editions'