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James Baldwin

"This Is My Library"

I F there was one thing of which my father was justly and openly proud, that was his library. There was nothing like it in the New Settlement, and I fondly believed that there were few collections of books in the whole world that could rival it in variety and completeness. Some of our neighbors possessed an almanac or two, and in every Friend's house there was a family Bible, to say nothing of an occasional tract on slavery. In homes where there were children, one might find a few dilapidated school-books, hidden away in old hair trunks or among the cobwebs and dust of the cabin loft. But nowhere was there such a collection of printed works as that which gave honor and distinction to the cabin wherein I was born.

Our bookcase, as we called it, consisted of two shelves, made by laying short boards upon some wooden pegs that had been driven into the wall, midway between the fireplace and the corner cupboard. It was so high that in order to reach the lowest books I was obliged to stand upon a chair. The shelves were placed one directly above the other, and they were scarcely half as long as the five-foot shelf recently made popular and glorified by an ex-president of our oldest university.

The books were arranged with some care, the larger volumes on the upper shelf, the lesser on the lower. The collection made such an unusual appearance, that the neighbors who sometimes visited us seemed awed when they came near it, as though uncertain how to behave in the presence of so much preserved wisdom.

"This is my library," father would say, standing up very straight and tall and running his fingers lovingly across the backs of the books. And our visitors would stand with open mouths, gazing and wondering—some admiring, but more condemning and all questioning the propriety of a thing which seemed so like a worldly diversion.

Now, what were the contents of that wonderful library? In the upper shelf were six portly quarto volumes, in sheep binding, very appropriately entitled Friends' Library,  and comprising a series of memoirs and journals of eminent members of Our Society from the date of its organization down to the first years of the nineteenth century. Flanking these volumes on the right was a very old copy of the Bible, in leather covers, thumb-worn and greasy. It had belonged to my great-grandfather, eminent in the ministry, and it was so sacred that the mere touching of it sent an electric thrill of goodness to the heart. It was never taken from the shelf or opened, save now and then by good Aunt Rachel for the concealment between its leaves of a faded precious love-letter, preserved, I verily believed, since the days of the flood. There was room on this shelf for only one other book, and that was a thin gray-backed volume, written by William Penn and entitled, No Cross, No Crown. It was the dullest, dryest, most unsatisfactory book in the library, for I could get no sense out of it, no matter how persistently I wrestled with its big words and complicated phrases.

On this upper shelf there was but little to tempt the voracity of so young a bookworm as myself. Nevertheless, I more than once attacked one or another of those musty volumes, and with a determination worthy of success pored long over their pages. I took no little pleasure in turning the leaves of the Friends' Library,  picking out the easy passages, and studying the chapter headings and the tables of contents; and I soon came to know the books so well that if any particular biography were mentioned I could immediately tell where to find it.

It was the lower shelf, however, which contained the treasures best suited to the enrichment of youthful minds. Here was John Woolman's Journal,  that record of a gentle life, which Charles Lamb advises everybody to get by heart. What a picture John Woolman made upon my imagination as I thought of him clad in his undyed garments of exceeding plainness and refusing to ride in carriages because they were painted! I got none of his writings by heart, but the story of his remorse for killing a mother robin I read and reread many times with never-failing sympathy and admiration.

The next volume was a well-thumbed copy of George Fox's Journal—why were there so many journals? With dogged perseverance, I read every word of this book from its title-page to the end; but it was a reading of words only, for I failed to understand the meaning of the stiff unadorned sentences, and the greater part of the book was as unintelligible as Greek or Arabic. Nevertheless, there lingers in my memory a vivid picture of that doughty old champion of non-resistance, wearing leather breeches, preaching from the tops of haystacks, and refusing to doff his hat even to kings. I admired the heroism of the man who shrank from no danger and boldly spoke what was in his mind, regardless of scourgings and imprisonments and the revilings of the ungodly; but somehow I hated his egotism and thought of him as a crusty, opinionated and unlovable man whom I hoped I should never meet in this world or in the world to come. My notions of time and place were confused and indefinite, and I thought of George Fox and William Penn and Oliver Cromwell as still being much alive and only waiting for a convenient opportunity to visit the New Settlement. I had no realization of the fact that two hundred years and a broad ocean lay between me and those valiant heroes of another civilization.

Next in order upon the lower shelf were three of four school-books to which I had not yet attained. My father, in the process of educating himself, had mastered these books with a great sense of pleasure and profit, and he assured me that they would be very handy when I became old enough to be sent to school. Among these, I remember Pike's Arithmetic,  a stiff little volume from which with father's help I early learned the tables of multiplication and dry measure. Its nearest neighbor was Lindley Murray's English Reader,  a book of classical selections with which I frequently wrestled, sometimes to my edification, but often to my serious discouragement.

Reposing conveniently near these was a thin cloth-bound volume familiarly known to us as The Discipline,  wherein were printed the principles of faith and the guiding rules of Our Society, together with the forms to be observed on all occasions of worship, of business, of marriage and of death. It was an ugly book, repugnant to my sight, and I seldom disturbed its solemn repose.

Then there was that old blue-backed spelling-book with the name of Noah Webster on the title-page—a dog's-eared, dilapidated, ill-smelling little work which was the common property of our two "big boys" and marked the limit of their literary attainments. Its general contents consisted of meaningless rows of words, words, words, and task lessons in which I could discover neither rhythm nor rhyme nor common sense; and for these I conceived an intense dislike, which even to this day is revived at the mere mention of a spelling-book. But there were occasional lines of reading at the bottom of the page—short proverbs, pithy sayings, bits of information—which I frequently perused with interest. And toward the end I found a collection of four or five fables which afforded enjoyment for many an idle hour. The story of the "Milkmaid and Her Pail" was so nearly in the line of my own experiences that I committed it to memory and recited it one day to Cousin Mandy Jane, greatly to her amusement and disgust.

Fit companion for the spelling-book was a belabored little volume, with broken leather backs, entitled Walker's Dictionary. Its use was not well understood, and therefore it was but seldom referred to; yet the memory of its first important service to me still lingers in my mind. It happened one day after we had all been to meetin' and had heard there an eloquent discourse from a traveling Friend upon the wonders of the invisible world. Our womenfolk were busy putting the dinner on the table, the big boys, David and Jonathan, were loitering impatiently by the hearth, and father was looking at his library. Very naturally everybody was thinking about the strange minister and his unusual sermon.

"Well, he can preach right smart, anyhow," remarked Cousin Mandy Jane, as she laid the dishes in their places. "I could jist set and listen to him all day, he speaks his words so plain and so purty."

"But did thee understand all of his purty words?" queried Aunt Rachel, adjusting her cap strings. "Sometimes thee can be pleased with the sound of things without knowin' much about their sense."

"Well, it seems to me his words was nearly all Scripter," answered Mandy Jane; "leastwise he spoke 'em so plain that a body couldn't help but understand. But, come to think of it, there was one word that I never heerd before. He kept sayin' it over and over, over and over, and it sounded so uncommon that I thought I'd ax what it meant. He must have spoke it twenty times, and he spoke it in a mighty purty way, too."

"Does thee remember what partickler word it was?" inquired mother, as she stooped over to remove the smoking-hot corn dodgers from the covered skillet in which they had been baking.

"Well, no," answered Cousin Mandy Jane; "but it was a mighty queer-soundin' word and it had somethin' to do with the world. I do wish I could recklect it. I think it begun with in, or un, or some sich thing."

"Maybe it was 'invisible,' " said David, whose memory of words was sometimes superior to his power of using them.

"Laws' sakes, yes! That's the very word. It's queer, ain't it?" And Cousin Mandy Jane ran to bring a pitcher of milk.

"It's a good-soundin' word," placidly remarked Aunt Rachel. "I noticed how beautiful he rolled it off his tongue—'in-vis-i-bul-l-l wor-r-rld!' It was better nor a pipe of tobacker to hear him roll them words along like rollin' punkins over the barn floor."

"But what does it mean? I'd  like to know," said mother.

"I think it means somethin' that's clean gone out of sight," answered Aunt Rachel. "What does thee think, Stephen?"

Father, being thus appealed to, made reply in his usual quiet way: "Suppose we look and see what the dictionary says."

He took the leather-covered volume down from its place and turned the leaves with much deliberation. Finding a word in the dictionary was no common process with him, and he progressed slowly. At length, however, he announced the result: "Here it is. 'I-n, in—v-i-s, viz, inviz—i, invizi—b-l-e, bul, invisible, something that can not be seen.' The minister spoke of an invisible world meaning a world that we can not see."

"Well, I don't keer what the meanin' of it is," said Aunt Rachel, "it's a mighty purty-soundin' word, leastwise as the preacher spoke it."

And we all sat down to dinner.

In truth, the minister had given to the word a peculiar musical inflection which it is impossible to indicate on paper. There was a singsong melody connected with it that had pleased my imagination mightily—it was the nearest approach to real singing that I had ever heard. As I sat at the table I repeated it softly to myself with varying intonations and inflections. Immediately it was echoed back to my mental tympanum in tones exactly like those of the minister. My unseen playmate was certainly near; I felt his soft breath upon my cheek.

"I can not see thee," I said.

"No, for I am invisible, " he answered.

"Well, that's a good name for thee," I returned. "I think I will always call thee Invisible—yes, I will name thee Inviz, Inviz."

"I shall like that name," he whispered. And we were both happy.

But, to the library again.

At the extreme right-hand end of the lower shelf, you might have seen my treasure of treasures—the three precious little volumes that were all my own. They were Emerson's Primer,  McGuffey's First Reader,  and the "Child's Instructor,  by a teacher of Philadelphia." In presenting these books to me, father had said, "Robert, these are thine. They are the beginning of thy own library. Take good care of them, and as thee grows older, perhaps thee may have others given to thee."

Oh, the delightful memories that are awakened by the mention of those books! In Emerson's Primer  were my first lessons in reading—little stories of the most absorbing interest, of which the following is a sample:

"Is he in? He is in.

"Do we go up? We do go up.

"Go in. Do go in.

"We go in. We go up.

"Up we go. We do so."

This was a great romance, a charming fairy tale related in words of two letters, and leading up to a delightful climax. And when the action proceeded to words of three letters, how thrilling was the result!

"You are wet.

"Can you get dry?

"See him run.

"The sly fox met him."

The yellow covers of the Primer were faded and torn, the leaves were thumb-worn, every page was grimy and soiled from much handling, but to me it was a garden of perpetual delight through which I was never weary of strolling.

McGuffey's First Reader was not inferior to it in interest, and it was a grade higher in language and thought. In it I reveled over the stories of "The Poor Old Man" and "The Broken Window." Good moral tales these were, my dear Leonidas, and they were calculated to help in the building of good moral men—which can not be said of the slush and rot that are too often found in the so-called "method" readers of to-day. And there were a few delightful poems, too—poems of the kind that children understand and enjoy. Chief among these was that little masterpiece which never grows old:

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

How I wonder what you are,

Up above the world so high,

Like a diamond in the sky."

And scarcely inferior to it was another poetical gem which I memorized and spoke as my first "piece" at school.

"I like to see a little dog

And pat him on his head;

So prettily he wags his tail

Whenever he is fed."

The brightest and best, however, of my trio of literary treasures was the little volume entitled The Child's Instructor. This was a veritable storehouse of knowledge, a collection of all sorts of good things, an array of thought gems adapted to the understanding of children of every age. What could be more musical to the ear or more suggestive to the imagination than this little lesson?

"Ab eb ib ob ub; ac ec ic oc uc.

"Ad ed id od ud; af ef if of uf.

"Ag eg ig og ug; ak ek ik ok uk.

"Ba be bi bo bu; ca ce ci co cu.

"Da de di do du; fa fe fi fo fu.

"Ha he hi ho hu; ja je ji jo ju."

There was a peculiar fascination in such exercises as this, and I think they were fully as sensible and useful as much of the present-day babble under the head of phonograms and blends, families and stock words. When weary of real study or of wrestling with George Fox and his followers, I often took great pleasure in humming these over and over to my invisible playmate, varying the order of the syllables and forming new ones as he would from time to time suggest.

Many things in this odd little volume fixed themselves indelibly upon my memory, and they, no doubt, have had a subtle influence upon my thoughts and actions at times when I least suspected it. Among such was the following couplet on the first page, which pleased me so much that I adopted it as my motto, wrote it down and never forgot it:

"Let this be your plan,

Learn all that you can."

Here also were occasional touches of humor tempered with a droll philosophy which at times set me to thinking and furnished me with food for speculation. One passage, which I remember, appealed to my imagination with such force that I learned it by heart, and afterward went out into the pasture and declaimed it to the sheep:

"History informs us that Tom Thumb grew up to be a greater man than his mother; but before we attempt to prove this, we must inquire what makes a great man. Is it a big head? No. Is it a strong arm? No. Is it a fat body? No. Is it a long leg? No.—But I will tell you what it is. It is a wise head and a good heart."

The sheep were probably not much edified by this brief discourse; but there was one barefooted boy who went to his bed that night fully resolved that he would some day become a greater man than Tom Thumb. He thought of his three, thin little volumes on the lower shelf, and pictured to himself the great library which he hoped to possess by the time he had grown to manhood. And Inviz whispered to him that perhaps, if he were very good, he might acquire a collection of books equal if not superior to that of his father.