Tuesday, November 21, 2006

His True Love Was Books

There was nothing tedious about Eugene Field's book Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac. It was sometimes quaint, sometimes folksy, nearly always tongue-in-cheek, and good for a snicker, a chuckle, or an outright guffaw from time to time. I mentioned in a previous post Field's first love--The New England Primer and Captivity Waite. Later in the book we learn Captivity's fate. She married, had children and a pretty traditional life, but Field still thought fondly of her and kept in touch. He wistfully mentions her now and then and while regret is too strong a word, he does wish that he had been the one to marry her. But Field never married at all, his true love was books. I think one of my favorite essays was "Baldness and Intellectuality." Field and his bookish friend, Judge Methuen, had a theory that baldness was a sure sign of intelligence. The theory goes like this:

A vigiliant and active soul invariably compels baldness, so close are the relations between the soul and the brain, and so destructive are the growth and operations of the soul to those vestigial features which humanity has inherited from those grosser animals, our prehistoric ancestors.
Of course, both men were bald. Field's sister, Miss Susan, had another theory on why Field was bald. Field loves to read in bed and has a gas jet lamp (this being before the time of electricity) positioned perfectly over his bed to provide just the right light while he read. Miss Susan suggests that perhaps Field is bald because the heat of the gas jet dried out his scalp resulting in the death of hair follicles and therefore, loss of hair. Field insists Miss Susan has it all wrong and refuses to argue with her. Field also relates some delightful anecdotes about Samuel Johnson. My favorite was when Johnson was once in London and went into a bookseller's shop to ask for employment. The bookseller gave Johnson's "burly frame, enormous hands, coarse face, and humble apparel" the once over and told him, " 'You would make a better porter.' " Johnson was irate, picked up a folio and let it fly at the bookseller's head, knocking him flat. Later, Johnson explained to Boswell, " 'Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him.' " Is Boswell's Life of Johnson filled with bits like this? If so, I am going to have to make plans to read it. Field and his friend the Judge thought it would be great fun to add to their libraries an edition of the book Johnson threw, but in spite of all their researches, they could never find what the title of the folio was. Such disappointment! I wish I had a doctor like Field had. Dr. O'Rell, I suspect, is either made up or an exaggeration of huge proportions since he is too good to be true. He espouses medical theories of bibliomania and diagnoses maladies the likes of bacillus librorum. After losing a book at auction published by Elzevir, a publisher he collects, Field took to his bed, afflicted with melancholia. Dr. O'Rell diagnosed Field with "the megrims." The good doctor prescribed Father Prout's Rogueries of Tom Moore and Kit North's debate with the Ettrick Shepherd on the topic of "sawmon." If only doctors could write book prescriptions! There is so much in this book that is fun I could go on, but better if you just get the book and read it for yourself!