Saturday, September 15, 2007
Books are as tombstones made by the living for the living, but destined soon only to remind us of the dead. The preface, like an epitaph, seems vainly to "implore the passing tribute" of a moment's interest. No man is allured by either a grave-inscription or a preface, unless it be accompanied by that ineffable charm which age casts over mortal productions. Libraries, in one sense, represent cemeteries, and the rows of silent volumes, with their dim titles, suggest burial tablets, many of which, alas! mark only cenotaphs—empty tombs. A modern book, no matter how talented the author, carries with it a familiar personality which may often be treated with neglect or even contempt, but a volume a century old demands some reverence; a vellum-bound or hog-skin print, or antique yellow parchment, two, three, five hundred years old, regardless of its contents, impresses one with an indescribable feeling akin to awe and veneration,—as does the wheat from an Egyptian tomb, even though it be only wheat. We take such a work from the shelf carefully, and replace it gently. While the productions of modern writers are handled familiarly, as men living jostle men yet alive; those of authors long dead are touched as tho’ clutched by a hand from the unseen world; the reader feels that a phantom form opposes his own, and that spectral eyes scan the pages as he turns them.
The stern face, the penetrating eye of the personage whose likeness forms the frontispiece of the yellowed volume in my hand, speaks across the gulf of two centuries, and bid me beware. The title page is read with reverence, and the great tome is replaced with care, for an almost superstitious sensation bids me be cautious and not offend. Let those who presume to criticize the intellectual productions of such men be careful; in a few days the dead will face their censors—dead.
Standing in a library of antiquated works, one sense the shadows of a cemetery. Each volume adds to the oppression, each old tome casts the influence of its spirit over the beholder, for have not these old books spirits? The earth-grave covers the mind as well as the body of its moldering occupant, and while only a strong imagination can assume that a spirit hovers over and lingers around inanimate clay, here each title is a voice that speaks as though the heart of its creator still throbbed, the mind essence of the dead writer envelops the living reader. Take down that vellum-bound volume, — it was written in one of the centuries long past. The pleasant face of its creator as fresh as if but a print of yesterday, smiles upon you from the exquisitely engraved copper-plate frontispiece; the mind of the author rises from out of the words before you. This man is not dead and his comrades live. Turn to the shelves about, before each book stands a guardian spirit,—together they form a phantom army that, invisible to mortals, encircles the beholder.
Ah! This antique library is not as is a church graveyard, only a cemetery for the dead; it is also a mansion for the living. These alcoves are trysting places for elemental shades. Essences of disenthralled minds meet here and revel. Thoughts of the past take shape and live in this atmosphere,—who can say that pulsations unperceived, beyond the reach of physics or of chemistry, are not as ethereal mind-seeds which, although unseen, yet, in living brain, exposed to such an atmosphere as this, formulate embryotic thought-expressions destined to become energetic intellectual forces? I sit in such a weird library and meditate. The shades of grim authors whisper in my ear, skeleton forms oppose my own, and phantoms possess the gloomy alcoves of the library I am building.
With the object of carrying to the future a section of thought current from the past, the antiquarian libraries of many nations have been culled, and purchases made in every book market of the world. These books surround me. Naturally many persons have become interested in the movement, and considering it a worthy one, unite to further the project, for the purpose is not personal gain. Thus it is not unusual for boxes of old chemical or pharmacal volumes to arrive by freight or express, without a word as to the donor. The mail brings manuscripts unprinted, and pamphlets recondite, with no word of introduction. They come unheralded. The authors of the senders realize that in this unique library a place is vacant if any work on connected subjects is missing, and thinking men of the world are uniting their contributions to fill such vacancies.
Enough has been said concerning the ancient library that has bred these reflections, and my own personality does not concern the reader. He can now formulate his conclusions as well perhaps as I, regarding the origin of the manuscript that is to follow, if he concerns himself at all over subjects mysterious or historical, and my connection therewith is of minor importance. Whether Mr. Drury brought the strange paper in person, or sent it by express or mail,—whether it was slipped into a box of books from foreign lands, or whether my hand held the pen that made the record,—whether I stood face to face with Mr. Drury in the shadows of this room, or have but a fanciful conception of his figure,—whether the artist drew upon his imagination for the vivid likeness of the several personages figured in the book that follow, or from reliable data has given fac-similes authentic,—is immaterial. Sufficient be it to say that the manuscript of this book has been in my possession for a period of seven years, and my lips must now be sealed concerning all that transpired in connection therewith outside the subject-matter recorded therein. And yet I can not deny that for these seven years I have hesitated concerning my proper course, and more than once have decided to cover from sight the fascinating leaflets, hide them among surrounding volumes, and let them slumber until chance should bring them to the attention of the future student.
These thoughts rise before me this gloomy day of December, 1894, as, snatching a moment from the exactions of business, I sit among these old volumes devoted to science-lore, and again study over the unique manuscript, and meditate; I hesitate again: Shall I, or shall I not?—but a duty is a duty. Perhaps the mysterious part of the subject will be cleared to me only when my own thought-words come to rest among these venerable relics of the past—when books that I have written become companions of ancient works about me—for then I can claim relationship with the shadows that flit in and out, and can demand that they, the ghosts of the library, commune with the shade that guards the book that holds this preface.
JOHN URI LLOYD.
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