I am not much a friend to out-of-doors reading. I cannot settle my spirits to it. I knew a Unitarian minister, who was generally to be seen upon Snow-hill (as yet Skinner’s-street was not), between the hours of ten and eleven in the morning, studying a volume of Lardner. I own this to have been a strain of abstraction beyond my reach. I used to admire how he sidled along, keeping clear of secular contacts. An illiterate encounter with a porter’s knot, or a bread basket, would have quickly put to flight all the theology I am master of, and have left me worse than indifferent to the five points.
There is a class of street-readers, whom I can never contemplate without affection—the poor gentry, who, not having wherewithal to buy or hire a book, filch a little learning at the open stalls—the owner, with his hard eye, casting envious looks at them all the while, and thinking when they will have done. Venturing tenderly, page after page, expecting every moment when he shall interpose his interdict, and yet unable to deny themselves the gratification, they “snatch a fearful joy.” Martin B——, in this way, by daily fragments, got through two volumes of Clarissa, when the stall-keeper damped his laudable ambition, by asking him (it was in his younger days) whether he meant to purchase the work. M. declares, that under no circumstances of his life did he ever peruse a book with half the satisfaction which he took in those uneasy snatches. A quaint poetess of our day has moralised upon this subject in two very touching but homely stanzas.
I saw a boy with eager eye
Open a book upon a stall,
And read, as he’d devour it all;
Which when the stall-man did espy,
Soon to the boy I heard him call,
“You, Sir, you never buy a book,
Therefore in one you shall not look.”
The boy pass’d slowly on, and with a sigh
He wish’d he never had been taught to read,
Then of the old churl’s books he should have had no need.
Of sufferings the poor have many,
Which never can the rich annoy:
I soon perceiv’d another boy,
Who look’d as if he’d not had any
Food, for that day at least—enjoy
The sight of cold meat in a tavern larder.
This boy’s case, then thought I, is surely harder,
Thus hungry, longing, thus without a penny,
Beholding choice of dainty-dressed meat:
No wonder if he wish he ne’er had learn’d to eat.
I am fond of passing my vacations (I believe I have said so before) at one or other of the Universities. Next to these my choice would fix me at some woody spot, such as the neighbourhood of Henley affords in abundance, upon the banks of my beloved Thames. But somehow or other my cousin contrives to wheedle me once in three or four seasons to a watering place. Old attachments cling to her in spite of experience.