‘Locked up, not lost.’
Or, to take it in reverse—When the great library of Alexandria went up in flames, doubtless its ashes awoke an appreciable and almost immediate energy in the crops of the Nile Delta. The more leisurable process of desiccation, by which, under modern storage, the components of a modern novel are released to fresh unions and activities admits, as Sir Thomas Browne would say, a wide solution, and was just the question to tease that good man. Can we not hear him discussing it? ’To be but pyramidally extant is a fallacy in duration.... To burn the bones of the King of Edom for lime seems no irrational ferity: but to store the back volumes of Mr Bottomley’s “John Bull” a passionate prodigality.’
Well, whatever the perplexities of our Library we may be sure they will never break down that tradition of service, help and courtesy which is, among its fine treasures, still the first. But we have seen that Mr Jenkinson’s perplexities are really but a parable of ours: that the question, What are we to do with all these books accumulating in the world? really is a question: that their mere accumulation really does heap up against us a barrier of such enormous and brute mass that the stream of human culture must needs be choked and spread into marsh unless we contrive to pipe it through. That a great deal of it is meant to help—that even the most of it is well intentioned—avails not against the mere physical obstacle of its mass. If you consider an Athenian gentleman of the 5th century B.C. connecting (as I always preach here) his literature with his life, two things are bound to strike you: the first that he was a man of leisure, somewhat disdainful of trade and relieved of menial work by a number of slaves; the second, that he was surprisingly unencumbered with books. You will find in Plato much about reciters, actors, poets, rhetoricians, pleaders, sophists, public orators and refiners of language, but very little indeed about books. Even the library of Alexandria grew in a time of decadence and belonged to an age not his. Says Jowett in the end:
He who approaches him in the most reverent spirit shall reap most of the fruit of his wisdom; he who reads him by the light of ancient commentators will have the least understanding of him.
We see him [Jowett goes on] with the eye of the mind in the groves of the Academy, or on the banks of the Ilissus, or in the streets of Athens, alone or walking with Socrates, full of those thoughts which have since become the common possession of mankind. Or we may compare him to a statue hid away in some temple of Zeus or Apollo, no longer existing on earth, a statue which has a look as of the God himself. Or we may once more imagine him following in another state of being the great company of heaven which he beheld of old in a vision. So, ’partly trifling but with a certain degree of seriousness,’ we linger around the memory of a world which has passed away.
Yes, ‘which has passed away,’ and perhaps with no token more evident of its decease than the sepulture of books that admiring generations have heaped on it!