From the archives

From The Buying of Books, originally published in the February 1922 issue of The Atlantic:

One book I should like to buy if I could get my hands on it; only in this case I should want the identical, individual book; it is a particular copy of Pope’s Essay on Man. Somebody must still have that particular book—or has it been ingloriously fed to the flames long ago? How or why I should ever have hit upon Pope’s Essay on Man is a mystery; but it was the first serious book I read, as a boy. Up to that time I had read chiefly Beadle’s ‘Dime Novels’; but these I had just abandoned, because I had grown so familiar with Dick Dead-Eye that I knew what he was going to do before he did it, and so I could not see the use of reading anything more about him. But Pope was different. For some time after I read the Essay on Man, I regarded the acquaintance with it as the one infallible sign of an awakened mind. What led me, later, to discard this criterion was the fact that, so far as I could learn, no person among my acquaintances had read it; and I got tired of being the only awakened mind in a town of four thousand people.


Which leads me to say (the subtle connection will appear in a moment) that some books I buy because they minister to my pride. I am not a scholar. But sometimes I have imagined that, if anyone had caught me young enough and encouraged me hard enough, I might have been. This pleasant illusion I keep up by buying certain books. There are the Loeb Classics, for instance—with the Greek text of Plato’s dialogues and Sophocles’s dramas, and other such light stuff, on one page, and the English on the other. I amuse myself sometimes by trying to make some of the Greek words fit into the English. But that is not what I have these books for. I have them so that somebody may come into my study some day, and pick one of them up, and turning the pages thoughtfully, may say, ‘What a whale of a man this Patton is!’ I have not realized largely yet on my investment in these books, since nobody has actually done this. But it may happen any time.


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