A light-hearted literary 12 days of Christmas

Amusing anecdotes from the world of books

Andy Warhol’s Franz Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Photograph: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Andy Warhol’s Franz Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Photograph: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images


For your entertainment on the twelve days of Christmas, courtesy of A& A Farmar book publishers.

1. A German traveller in rural England in the 1780s

“I sat down in the shade under one of the hedges and read Milton. But this relief was soon rendered disagreeable to me; for those who rode or drove past me stared at me with astonishment; and made many significant gestures as if they thought my head deranged. So singular must it needs have appeared to them to see a man sitting along the side of a public road reading.”

2. Diana Mosley (née Mitford) recounts a conversation when she and her friend Sibell Norman were aged 7.

“I went to Farve’s business-room with Sibell one evening before dinner to say goodnight and there was Mr Norman sitting in an armchair reading. He put down the book and talked to us for a few minutes. As we went to bed I said to Sibell: “Does your father often read?” “Oh yes”, she replied. “I have never heard of a man reading.” I said. “Oh haven’t you?” said Sibell. “Lots of Fa’s friends read.” Until that moment I had always imagined reading was for women and children only.”

A Life of Contrasts, Chap 3

3. In the bookshop

Robert Benchley rest his soul, could scarcely bear to go into a bookshop . . . his trouble came from a great and gruelling compassion. It was no joy to him to see the lines and tiers of shining volumes, for as he looked, there would crash over him, like a mighty wave, a vision of every one of those authors of every one of those books saying to himself as he finished his opus. “There – I’ve done it! I have written the book. Now it and I are famous for ever.”

4. From the diaries of the old curmudgeon Thomas Hearne.

“On Thursday last St Marie’s Great Bell rang out in the evening for Mr Stephen Fletcher, Bookseller, who died at London of a violent feaver aged 47 . . . he was a proud, confident, ill-natured, impudent, ignorant Fellow, peevish and forward to his wife (whom he used to beat) a great Sot, and a whoring prostituted Wretch and of no Credit tho’ he always made a great Stir and Bustle.’
Sept 16 (Sat) 1727

5. The invention of sinful men

‘Cousin Julia had long since made up her mind that reading is a wicked waste of time. ‘Books’ she exclaimed, ‘are the invention of sinful men! If Almighty God had approved of books He would not have created worms to destroy them.’
Lady Mary, The Farm by Lough Gur (London 1937) p 181

6. The danger of books taken seriously

At the beginning of the First World War the London Library was forbidden by the Home Office to import books from Germany. After two years of lobbying the officials relented, but only on the condition that any books bought would be kept in a locked room, and none of the members of the library would be allowed to see them. This condition was relaxed only after the end of the war.
J. Wells, Rude Words (London 1991) p 141

7. Books that sting us

“I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banaished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”
Kafka to his friend Oskar Pollak (Pawel’s life of Kafka)

8. The sad demise of a library

In 1791 the Dublin Library Society was founded “to procure those great and expensive books usually beyond the reach of private individuals”. Thias was considerably before the more famous London Library. It finally ended up in D’Olier Street.

By 1825 there were about 3,000 members, but this had fallen to 400 by the 1850s. In 1848 the library was declared to be “full” and a committee was established to sell some of the books, supposedly to finance new acquisitions.

In 1854 Rev MacDonnell, Provost of Trinity, was elected president of the society. The standard history of the society says “MacDonnell loved billiards. Under the guise of expanding both literature and amusements, he turned one of the first floor rooms into a billiard room. A second was quickly added. Dinners were provided.” The upper room became a billiard club.

At this time an internal report revealed financial irregularities in the library’s operations, and noted that only 60 members had bothered to pay the 10s lending deposit. A new set of bylaws was written for the society, firmly expunging the title “librarian” for the senior employee and replacing it with “secretary”.

After 1870 there were no more “literary evenings”. By 1880 the society’s entry in Thom’s read “D’Olier Street Club, late Dublin Library Society”. The books were sold the following year. Despite the 1854 act enabling councils to levy a rate for the establishment of libraries, there were at this time no public libraries in Dublin that carried current books.

Source: J B Howell ‘A History of the Dublin Library Society 1791-1881’ (Dalhousie 1985)

9. A problem with autobiography

“Why should I read it, when I know what’s in it?”
Katie Price, on her autobiography.

10. Exiled in England while Mussolini occupied his country, Haile Selassie spent a weekend with the publisher Victor Gollancz and his wife. Afterwards he wrote:

‘To the lady Gollancz*, wise in kindness and motherhood, and the eternal youth of beauty, greetings.

I thank her for her wonderful weekend and shall carry back to my country the memory of her garden and its flowers and birds and her home with its music and pictures and good words. In my country there is no such peace; and our slaves are less willing than her own; nor are our courtiers willing to participate in the gardening and the pub life of beer and darts.

To her most wise and dialectical husband kind in all things including the cigar and the brandy, also Greetings.

Ras Tafari

Emperor (until the present) of the Abyssinians.

* Gollancz was not in fact knighted until 1965

Ruth Dudley Edwards, Victor Gollancz, p295

11. Publisher Richard Phillips to Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan) 1804.

‘I assure you that you have a power of writing, a fancy of imagination and a degree of enthusiasm which will enable you to produce an immortal work if you will labour it sufficiently. Write only on one side of your paper, and retain a broad margin.’

Phillips made quite a lot of money from supporting Lady Morgan, but much more from juveniles and compilations. He was supposed to have rejected Sir Walter Scott’s first novel. Isaac D’Israeli (Benjamin’s father) told John Murray that ‘like an atheist, who is usually a disappointed man, he thinks all belles lettres are nonsense, and denies the existence of taste’.

Smiles A Publisher and his Friends 1.49

12. Oxford manners

“I was once in an Oxford bookshop when I noticed a colleague of mine, a distinguished Oxford philosopher, browsing his way through a volume of Philosphy Made Simple . Seizing the chance of a jape, I crept behind him and murmured: “That’s a bit difficult for the likes of you, isn’t it?” He swung round with a start, but to my dismay it was not my colleague at all. It was a complete stranger. I had the vague impression that he was a tourist. Somewhere in the world there is a man who has reason to believe that Oxford is such a snotty place that strangers step up and sneer at you in bookshops when you are furtively trying to better yourself.”
Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper, London: Allen Lane, 2001, p73