The first few paragraphs of Sir Conan Doyles essay, conversation, really, as he readily admits, make splendid reading:
"I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland. Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Each is a mummified soul embalmed in cere-cloth and natron of leather and printer's ink. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command."
He leads the reader through several shelves of his library, sometimes focusing on a single favorite book, one that allows us to see what a man of action he really was:
"Come through the magic door with me, and sit here on the green settee, where you can see the old oak case with its untidy lines of volumes. Smoking is not forbidden. Would you care to hear me talk of them? Well, I ask nothing better, for there is no volume there which is not a dear, personal friend, and what can a man talk of more pleasantly than that? The other books are over yonder, but these are my own favourites -- the ones I care to re-read and to have near my elbow. There is not a tattered cover which does not bring its mellow memories to me. ...
"If I had to choose the one book out of all that line from which I have had most pleasure and most profit, I should point to yonder stained copy of Macaulay's "Essays." It seems entwined into my whole life as I look backwards. It was my comrade in my student days, it has been with me on the sweltering Gold Coast, and it formed part of my humble kit when I went a-whaling in the Arctic. Honest Scotch harpooners have addled their brains over it, and you may still see the grease stains where the second engineer grappled with Frederick the Great. Tattered and dirty and worn, no gilt-edged morocco-bound volume could ever take its place for me."
Thereafter, as he discusses particular authors, it is best to take each section on its own, thinking about the author, Doyle's analysis, mulling over Doyle's favorite quotations. Otherwise, you may find your eyes glazing over -- especially in some of the sections that seem long ago, far away, remote -- I'm thinking of all the one time pugilists that Doyle seems to have studied, either in person or in the pages of sports writers 75 years before his time.
But Doyle can be spot on. His analysis of the great Samuel Johnson is spot on for my money: he praises a large print version of Boswell's Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765, then skewers the great man himself with great clarity and great kindness (before spending several pages supporting his thesis:
"That book interests me--fascinates me -- and yet I wish I could join heartily in that chorus of praise which the kind-hearted old bully has enjoyed. It is difficult to follow his own advice and to "clear one's mind of cant" upon the subject, for when you have been accustomed to look at him through the sympathetic glasses of Macaulay or of Boswell, it is hard to take them off, to rub one's eyes, and to have a good honest stare on one's own account at the man's actual words, deeds, and limitations. If you try it you are left with the oddest mixture of impressions. How could one express it save that this is John Bull taken to literature--the exaggerated John Bull of the caricaturists--with every quality, good or evil, at its highest? Here are the rough crust over a kindly heart, the explosive temper, the arrogance, the insular narrowness, the want of sympathy and insight, the rudeness of perception, the positiveness, the overbearing bluster, the strong deep-seated religious principle, and every other characteristic of the cruder, rougher John Bull who was the great grandfather of the present good-natured Johnnie."
Doyle is absolutely brilliant in his analysis of Poe, and one can see through his eyes how Dupin became Sherlock Holmes through Doyle's pen. He glories in the courage and style of the French fighting men, especially those who lost the day at Waterloo -- "a near thing that" -- while mourning the fact that he hasn't found any English writers who come close to their French adversaries in the military literature of the Napoleonic wars. He often complains at how grudging the English are in giving praise, often offering none at all, to their enemies, and even less to their allies -- not a word about the Prussians at Waterloo, for example, or the Spanish or the Portuguese or the Russians on that and other fields.
After the brilliant beginning, Doyle begins to slog a bit, but I've found that if I take his book in small bites -- and read some of his favorites -- he has created a very useful and entertaining introduction to the great writers of the 1900s. A small example is this short paragraph about Pepys:
"The wonderful thing about Mr. Pepys is that a man should succeed in making himself seem so insignificant when really he must have been a man of considerable character and attainments. Who would guess it who read all these trivial comments, these catalogues of what he had for dinner, these inane domestic confidences--all the more interesting for their inanity! The effect left upon the mind is of some grotesque character in a play, fussy, self-conscious, blustering with women, timid with men, dress-proud, purse-proud, trimming in politics and in religion, a garrulous gossip immersed always in trifles. And yet, though this was the day-by-day man, the year-by-year man was a very different person, a devoted civil servant, an eloquent orator, an excellent writer, a capable musician, and a ripe scholar who accumulated 3000 volumes--a large private library in those days--and had the public spirit to leave them all to his University. You can forgive old Pepys a good deal of his philandering when you remember that he was the only official of the Navy Office who stuck to his post during the worst days of the Plague. He may have been--indeed, he assuredly was--a coward, but the coward who has sense of duty enough to overcome his cowardice is the most truly brave of mankind."
On the technical side, the Kindle version worked very well on my iPhone; it is well edited and the small screen encouraged me to read this book in the way I found most enjoyable -- in small bites separated by time and other readings.
Robert C. Ross
revised April 2015