Tuesday, 1 March 2016

TO INSTRUCT AS WELL AS TO PLEASE: IN WHICH A BOOK IS DELIVERED BY SPECTRAL HAND


 
 

As a desire for the publication of some of these papers has been repeatedly expressed, the author has seen fit to embody them in the present volume. He will be much pleased if they are found more widely useful than he anticipated.

Charles Carroll Morgan, Preface to Variety Papers

 
I was recently given a book given by someone who claimed that it appeared one day, with no explanation, on a desk in a house in Virginia. Ghostly happenings, she added, were a regular occurrence in this particular house. I have no reason to doubt it. So much exists in the modern world which seems to go against all experience and common sense. Why should there not be ghosts? This wonderful book even mentions the spirit world, in passing.

The edition of Variety Papers by Charles Carroll Morgan that is pictured above begins with a charming dedication that invokes a simpler world, the intellectual bonhomie of the well-informed, empirical amateur;

‘To the fortnightly club of Nashua, New Hampshire, this little volume is respectfully dedicated by its author, in grateful acknowledgement of his agreeable relations with the club for more than twenty years.’

This winning epigraph already transports us back to a time in which a dedication was more likely to be a volume of edifying prose than a goal dedicated by a footballer to his dead mother.

The edition itself is dated 1910, not simply long before the internet, but long before television, even ten years before the first American radio stations began to emerge. Its sub-title is inspired;

Variety Papers, or, Glimpses of Romance in the World of Fact.

This edition was published by The Fort Hill Press, resident as they were at 176 to 184 High Street, Boston, Massachusetts. The publisher was one Samuel Usher, meaning, as publishers are often referred to as publishing houses, that Mr. Morgan’s modest collection was published by the House of Usher. But I digress.

Physically, the book is a very beautiful object. It features several lithographically reproduced photographs which I would say – as an amateur observer – were of excellent quality for a pre WWI publication. I had to cut several of the pages myself, which I assume makes me this particular copy’s first reader.

I am anticipating treasure trove with Variety Papers. This type of philanthropic but well-attested informed amateurism can be a delight for the reader who would like to stray from the commercial path. Books such as this are testament to a time when people met and discussed topics of interest, each hoping to enlighten the others with the experience and viewpoints of a single human being rather than a homogeneous commercialised, consumerist and corporatist perspective. ‘In accordance with the wishes of the club,’ writes Mr. Morgan, ‘the papers were meant to instruct as well as to please.’ And please they do.

Before the Taylorist specialisation of modern academia, there were often gentlemen autodidacts seeking to instruct their fellow men. The range of topics contained within Variety Papers is wide, the essay titles enchanting in themselves, including;

Wonders of the Human Mind

A Glimpse of the Feathered Tribes

Climbing Mont Blanc in a Snowstorm

Daniel Webster’s Oratory Comparatively Reviewed

I suspect Mr. Morgan would have made an excellent dinner guest.

No comments:

Post a Comment