Spirited fugue

Coleridge, I think his name was, spoke of his books speaking back to him from the shelves, and their spines winking as so many signal boxes; Swift had them flying about the room, and wrestling with each other in the prologomena to his Tale of a Tub. Swift was being satirical, as the perfessers generally agree, whether he was being satirical or not; Coleridge, as his critics argue, was, when he was not on drugs, a madman.

He was, after all, in favour of the Atlantic slave trade, or rather he wasn’t, but it was made to look that way. For it brought inhabitants of the darkest jungles of West Africa into the vicinity of Christian redemption and, even if it hadn’t, the French would probably still be taking slaves. This kind of reasoning is only attempted by (Christianized, reactionary) blacks, these days; whites find other things to talk about.

But I am concerned not with slaves, which get too much publicity for their lack of numbers in these parts, but with books, particularly wingéd books, which fly off the shelves. For the truth is, Coleridge’s books were also capable of flight — spiritual fugue, not physical levitation — and he communed with them even when he was not reading.

This is a function of books in a library that has been discounted in modern times, beginning with the invention of cheap paperbacks. As a proper lady of my acquaintance comments, “Books furbish a room.” (She was once employed as an interior designer.) Indeed, the choicest sort of intellectual pretenders (“influencers”) also take this approach, and they collect books you cannot argue with, any more than you could argue with them.

An old-fashioned, thus unfashionable library is, nevertheless, a nice place to live. Cicero recommended that we inhabit a library, in a garden; I would add a kitchen to the equipage. The books will become wingéd only after you have begun to commune with them, but they have this immediate advantage. For as long as they are allowed to decorate your interior, you may read them, and look things up.