old-books (first love) a

“As distinctly as though it were but yesterday do I recall the time when I met my first love. It was in the front room of the old homestead, and the day was a day in spring. The front room answered those purposes which are served by the so-called parlor of the present time. I remember the low ceiling, the big fireplace, the long, broad mantelpiece, the andirons and fender of brass, the tall clock with its jocund and roseate moon, the bellows that was always wheezy, the wax flowers under a glass globe in the corner, an allegorical picture of Solomon’s temple, another picture of little Samuel at prayer, the high, stiff-back chairs, the foot-stool with its gayly embroidered top, the mirror in its gilt-and-black frame—all these things I remember well, and with feelings of tender reverence, and yet that day I now recall was well-nigh threescore and ten years ago!

Best of all I remember the case in which my grandmother kept her books, a mahogany structure, massive and dark, with doors composed of diamond-shaped figures of glass cunningly set in a framework of lead. I was in my seventh year then, and I had learned to read I know not when. The back and current numbers of the “Well-Spring” had fallen prey to my insatiable appetite for literature. With the story of the small boy who stole a pin, repented of and confessed that crime, and then became a good and great man, I was as familiar as if I myself had invented that ingenious and instructive tale; I could lisp the moral numbers of Watts and the didactic hymns of Wesley, and the annual reports of the American Tract Society had already revealed to me the sphere of usefulness in which my grandmother hoped I would ultimately figure with discretion and zeal. And yet my heart was free; wholly untouched of that gentle yet deathless passion which was to become my delight, my inspiration, and my solace, it awaited the coming of its first love.

Upon one of those shelves yonder—it is the third shelf from the top, fourth compartment to the right—is that old copy of the “New England Primer,” a curious little, thin, square book in faded blue board covers. A good many times I have wondered whether I ought not to have the precious little thing sumptuously attired in the finest style known to my binder; indeed, I have often been tempted to exchange the homely blue board covers for flexible levant, for it occurred to me that in this way I could testify to my regard for the treasured volume. I spoke of this one day to my friend Judge Methuen, for I have great respect for his judgment.

“It would be a desecration,” said he, “to deprive the book of its original binding. What! Would you tear off and cast away the covers which have felt the caressing pressure of the hands of those whose memory you revere? The most sacred of sentiments should forbid that act of vandalism!”

I never think or speak of the “New England Primer” that I do not recall Captivity Waite, for it was Captivity who introduced me to the Primer that day in the springtime of sixty-three years ago. She was of my age, a bright, pretty girl—a very pretty, an exceptionally pretty girl, as girls go. We belonged to the same Sunday-school class. I remember that upon this particular day she brought me a russet apple. It was she who discovered the Primer in the mahogany case, and what was not our joy as we turned over the tiny pages together and feasted our eyes upon the vivid pictures and perused the absorbingly interesting text! What wonder that together we wept tears of sympathy at the harrowing recital of the fate of John Rogers!

[…] How lasting are the impressions made upon the youthful mind! Through the many busy years that have elapsed since first I tasted the thrilling sweets of that miniature Primer I have not forgotten that “young Obadias, David, Josias, all were pious”; that “Zaccheus he did climb the Tree our Lord to see”; and that “Vashti for Pride was set aside”; and still with many a sympathetic shudder and tingle do I recall Captivity’s overpowering sense of horror, and mine, as we lingered long over the portraitures of Timothy flying from Sin, of Xerxes laid out in funeral garb, and of proud Korah’s troop partly submerged.

My Book and Heart
Must never part.

So runs one of the couplets in this little Primer-book, and right truly can I say that from the springtime day sixty-odd years ago, when first my heart went out in love to this little book, no change of scene or of custom no allurement of fashion, no demand of mature years, has abated that love.

And herein is exemplified the advantage which the love of books has over the other kinds of love. Women are by nature fickle, and so are men; their friendships are liable to dissipation at the merest provocation or the slightest pretext.

Not so, however, with books, for books cannot change. A thousand years hence they are what you find them to-day, speaking the same words, holding forth the same cheer, the same promise, the same comfort; always constant, laughing with those who laugh and weeping with those who weep.”

Eugene Field, ‘The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac’.

It is true that books do not change. Rather, it is the reader who carries with him the element of change into the relationship.

I wonder how many of us can still recall our ‘first love’ as well and as vividly as did Eugene Field in his recollection? I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t, and I am not even anywhere near three score and ten yet! :p

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.

Robertson Davies


3 thoughts on “Friday Feature: A Bibliomaniac’s First Love

  1. You know I can remember my first great love of a book. Beloved Belindy and any of the Raggedy Ann stories. I loved the fact that they all came to life at night and took care of each other and Beloved Belindy was the ‘mammy’ now completely out of fashion in books and life but I loved her and still have that book. Tattered and torn and I am close that that three score and ten.


    1. Thanks for sharing about your first great love of a book, Pam. I’m afraid I’ve not heard of Beloved Belindy before, but from what you wrote it is clear that she is truly beloved alright! 😉


  2. I can’t remember my first book love, either, but I do remember wanting so badly to learn how to read. I just knew those marks on paper meant something magical. I wasn’t taught to read until I was 6 years old, but I was a fast learner and have never stopped reading since.


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