“The heft and feel of a well-worn handle; the sight of shavings that curl from a blade; the logs in the woodpile; the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house; the smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves; the crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs. Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be without wood.”
—Eric Sloane (Everard Hinrichs), A Reverence for Wood
Several weeks ago, while walking through the stacks of Ohio State University’s Thompson Library, I passed by the bound issues of The New Yorker. I’d seen and even used them before but this particular day they caught my eye and my mind. I whimsically thought, What if my full-time job were to do nothing but sit and read the entire run of The New Yorker? There are almost 5,000 issues. Assuming I could read two per day (a generous estimate), ten issues each week (very generous), I wouldn’t be finished for nearly a decade. Pondering all the things I’ll never read made me melancholy, but I moved on.
Little did I know that Sir Winston Churchill covered this very feeling in his short book Painting as a Pastime (New York: Whittlesey House, 1950). I read this book yesterday and was delighted to find the following passage near the beginning:
The most common form of diversion is reading. In that vast and varied field millions find their mental comfort. Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library. “A few books,” which was Lord Morley’s definition of anything under five thousand, may give a sense of comfort and even of complacency. But a day in a library, even of modest dimensions, quickly dispels these illusory sensations. As you browse about, taking down book after book from the shelves and contemplating the vast, infinitely varied store of knowledge and wisdom which the human race has accumulated and preserved, pride, even in its most innocent forms, is chased from the heart by feelings of awe not untinged with sadness. As one surveys the mighty array of sages, saints, historians, scientists, poets and philosophers whose treasures one will never be able to admire—still less enjoy—the brief tenure of our existence here dominates mind and spirit.
Think of all the wonderful tales that have been told, and well told, which you will never know. Think of all the searching inquiries into matters of great consequence which you will never pursue. Think of all the delighting or disturbing ideas that you will never share. Think of the mighty labours which have been accomplished for your service, but of which you will never reap the harvest. But from this melancholy there also comes a calm. The bitter sweets of a pious despair melt into an agreeable sense of compulsory resignation from which we turn with renewed zest to the lighter vanities of life.
“What shall I do with all my books?” was the question; and the answer, “Read them,” sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.
Sir Winston, thank you for the advice. I will take comfort in having had the pleasure of the acquaintance of tens of thousands of books (and magazines), a few of which I even got to read, and many more to come.