What do yer do? He put down his chainsaw, having wielded it on the fence posts with the same deftness with which a carpenter might use a chisel. I work at the university, I said. He shook his head, sad, almost profoundly sad. Never read a book in me life! Couldn’t think of anything sillier. I didn’t pursue the topic and neither did he. He would have been well into his sixties then but he had never read a book. It might explain why it took him six months to send me the invoice for the job. Books, writing: not his thing.
I am prompted to remember this incident by the arrival of a book. A secondhand book I bought online from a bookseller in the English village of Virginia Water. It was not available in Australia. It took months to get here; I began to doubt it even would. It’s a book of considerable weight, both physical and intellectual, and when I am unwrapped it, I discovered it was also a book with a distinctive smell, the sort of smell a book might develop living in a Victorian house in a cold climate, with inadequate natural light and probably inadequate heating.
A book with a previous life. I can’t look at it without wondering where it came from, who might have owned it. Why did they have this book? Were they of like mind?
The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance is the work of the nineteenth-century Swiss scholar Jacob Burckhardt, best known for his still much admired and much referenced The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, to which this book is a companion.
Published originally in 1867, this edition has been edited by the art historian, Peter Murray, over a hundred years later. There would have been no photographs in the original publication and the photographs that are included in this edition are black-and-white photographs of very ordinary quality.
But the drawings shine. Some are meticulous sketches, others, meticulous drafting — plans, sections, façades and details, decorative and structural. They bring the architect and the design process back into the Renaissance building, reminding us that these buildings — so long ago finished — were originally ideas and plans.
Why this book? Renaissance is a novel about an Arts librarian, who loses his job at a university library in a Digital Age ‘purge’. Raymond doesn’t just work with books, he has a overwhelming passion for them, and he mounts an heroic defence of the printed word as the library culls thousands of volumes in the spirit of this new age. The redundant librarian, now alone with his books, plots the pursuit of a new age himself, dreams of a personal ‘renaissance’.
Raimond discovers Burckhardt’s opus while on a chance holiday in Venice, and the book inspires him to set out on a discovery of the Italian Renaissance. Burckhardt is his companion on this journey. Out of the library and into the street, but still with a book to guide him.
The idea of a book as travel companion is common. It’s the role of travel guides, explicitly so in the ‘Companion Guide’ series. It is the aim of these guides to provide a Companion in the person of the author who knows intimately the place and its people and is able to communicate this knowledge and affection to the reader. But for Raymond it is also the book itself that is the ‘companion’. It is the weight of it, the feel of it, the images within, the memory of a previously turned page that inspires him. It is the book he admires and sometimes argues with, the book that is the object of his care.
If we were only to have a few books as our ‘companions in life’ what might they be? I am not thinking of the ‘desert island’ scenario, where one chooses favourite books from a lifetime of reading, but the scenario of choosing a few books unread with the realisation that these books are to be your ‘books for life’. The idea makes little sense now, when almost every written text is available and often instantly so, but for hundreds of years this was a lived experience, after printing and literacy spread in the nineteenth century, a time when books still had the quality of being precious, and almost rare.
Years ago we inherited a library of these ‘books for life’ from farming ancestors, books that had conscientiously been bought for the purpose sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century. There was a bible, of course, personalised, the family births and deaths inscribed inside the front cover. There were two histories, William Mavor’s Universal History, Ancient and Modern in twenty-five volumes, published in 1802, and Archibald Alison’s History of Europe in nineteen volumes, covering the period from the beginnings of the French Revolution to the Restoration of the Bourbons. Published in 1848, this history is highly readable, scholarly and critical. Finally, there were eighteen volumes of literature: The Complete Plays of Shakespeare, edited with notes by Samuel Johnston and George Stevens. It is the sixth edition, published in 1813, long after Johnson had died. One hundred pages or so in the first volume is dedicated to a biography of ‘the playwright’. The biography itself is rather short, but is made voluminous by the copious critical comments and corrections of Johnson and Stevens, as they scratch around in the scant evidence. (At least we know who Johnson and Stevens actually were.)
The choices seem obvious, perhaps: the meaning of life, the history of the world (‘world knowledge’), the cultural riches of the English language.
How many of these books were read by the purchasers back in the nineteenth century? There was precious little time free from labour for farming families then. Could they have been part of a life-long cultural education, consumed an hour at a time each night, under the light of a kerosene lamp? Then discussion afterwards, perhaps, marvelling at the wonder of history, at the world beyond the farm.
Or did these ‘books for life’ serve another purpose? Perhaps they sat unread in the bookcase, unread but never unacknowledged. A reminder to the farmers of the rich culture they were heir to, but with which they had sparse opportunity to engage.