A Stone, a Leaf, a Bookcase

And like a man drunk with joy, half through the night he plundered the living treasure of those shelves. They were all there —

… the great chroniclers and recorders, the marvellous and enchanted lies of old Herodotus, and Sir Thomas Malory, and the voyages of Hakluyt and of Purchas, the histories of Mandeville and Hume. There was Burton’s marvellous Anatomy, his staggering erudition never smelling of the dust or of the lamp, his lusty, pungent ever-rushing-onward style, and the annihilating irony of Gibbon’s latinized sonority, and the savage, burning, somehow magic plainness of Swift’s style. There was the dark tremendous music of Sir Thomas Browne, and Hooker’s sounding and tremendous passion made great by genius and made true by faith, and there was the giant dance, the vast storm-rounding cadence, now demented and now strong as light, of great Carlyle; and beside the haunting cadences of this tremendous piece, there was the pungent worldliness of life-loving men; the keen diaries of John Evelyn, the lusty tang and calculation and sensual rumination of old Pepys, the writing bright as noon, natural as morning, and the plain and middle-magic of the eighteenth century, the flawless grace and faultless clearness of Addison and Steele, and then all the pageantry of living character, the pages crowded with the immortal flesh of Sterne, Defoe, and Smollett, the huge comic universe of Fielding, the little one of Austen, and the immortal and extravagant one of Charles Dickens, the magnificent proliferation of Sir Walter Scott’s tremendous gallery–and Thackeray’s sentimental gallantry and magic, and all the single magics of Nathaniel Hawthorne, of Meredith, and Melville, of Landor, Peacock, Lamb, and of De Quincey, of Hazlitt, and of Poe.

There were, as well, the works of all the poets, the Kelmscott Chaucers, the Dove editions, the doe-skin bindings, white and soft and velvet to the touch, the splendid bodies in all their royal pageantry of blue and gold and dense rich green–the Greek anthologies, and all the poets of antiquity, and the singing voices of the great Elizabethans–of Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, and of Spenser, Webster, Ford and Massinger, of Kyd and Greene and Marlowe, of Beaumont, Lyly, Nash and Dekker, of Jonson, Shakespeare, Herrick, Herbert, Donne.

They were all there, from thundering Æschylus to the sweet small voice of perfect-singing Herrick, from grand plain Homer to poignant Catullus, from acid and tart-humoured Horace, from the lusty, vulgar and sweet-singing voice of Geoffrey Chaucer, the great bronze ring and clangorous sonority of John Dryden, to the massy gold, the choked-in richness, the haunting fall and faery, of John Keats.

They were all there–each stored there in his little niche upon the living shelves, and at first he looted them, he plundered through their golden leaves as a man who first discovers a buried and inestimable treasure, and at first is dumb with joy at his discovery, and can only plunge his hands in it with drunken joy, scoop handfuls up and pour it over him and let the massy gold leak out again in golden ruin through his spread hands; or as a man who discovers some enchanted spring of ageless youth, of ever-long immortality, and drinks of it, and can never drink enough, and drinks and feels with every drink the huge summation of earth’s glory in his own enrichment, the ageless fires of its magic youth.

Of Time and the River — Thomas Wolfe

Two things to note: First, Wolfe gives an inspiring vision of great literature; and second, Wolfe uses a lot of words. Words can be magical but they can also be tedious.

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