Titania Learns the Business
The bookseller's morning routine was brisk and habitual. He was generally awakened about half-past seven by the jangling bell that balanced on a coiled spring at the foot of the stairs. This ringing announced the arrival of Becky, the old scrubwoman who came each morning to sweep out the shop and clean the floors for the day's traffic. Roger, in his old dressing gown of vermilion flannel, would scuffle down to let her in, picking up the milk bottles and the paper bag of baker's rolls at the same time. As Becky propped the front door wide, opened window transoms, and set about buffeting dust and tobacco smoke, Roger would take the milk and rolls back to the kitchen and give Bock a morning greeting. Bock would emerge from his literary kennel, and thrust out his forelegs in a genial obeisance. This was partly politeness, and partly to straighten out his spine after its all-night curvature. Then Roger would let him out into the back yard for a run, himself standing on the kitchen steps to inhale the bright freshness of the morning air.
This Saturday morning was clear and crisp. The plain backs of the homes along Whittier Street, irregular in profile as the margins of a free verse poem, offered Roger an agreeable human panorama. Thin strands of smoke were rising from chimneys; a belated baker's wagon was joggling down the alley; in bedroom bay-windows sheets and pillows were already set to sun and air. Brooklyn, admirable borough of homes and hearty breakfasts, attacks the morning hours in cheery, smiling spirit. Bock sniffed and rooted about the small back yard as though the earth (every cubic inch of which he already knew by rote) held some new entrancing flavour. Roger watched him with the amused and tender condescension one always feels toward a happy dog-- perhaps the same mood of tolerant paternalism that Gott is said to have felt in watching his boisterous Hohenzollerns.
The nipping air began to infiltrate his dressing gown, and Roger returned to the kitchen, his small, lively face alight with zest. He opened the draughts in the range, set a kettle on to boil, and went down to resuscitate the furnace. As he came upstairs for his bath, Mrs. Mifflin was descending, fresh and hearty in a starchy morning apron. Roger hummed a tune as he picked up the hairpins on the bedroom floor, and wondered to himself why women are always supposed to be more tidy than men.
Titania was awake early. She smiled at the enigmatic portrait of Samuel Butler, glanced at the row of books over her bed, and dressed rapidly. She ran downstairs, eager to begin her experience as a bookseller. The first impression the Haunted Bookshop had made on her was one of superfluous dinginess, and as Mrs. Mifflin refused to let her help get breakfast--except set out the salt cellars-- she ran down Gissing Street to a little florist's shop she had noticed the previous afternoon. Here she spent at least a week's salary in buying chrysanthemums and a large pot of white heather. She was distributing these about the shop when Roger found her.
"Bless my soul!" he said. "How are you going to live on your wages if you do that sort of thing? Pay-day doesn't come until next Friday!"
"Just one blow-out," she said cheerfully. "I thought it would be fun to brighten the place up a bit. Think how pleased your floorwalker will be when he comes in!"
"Dear me," said Roger. "I hope you don't really think we have floorwalkers in the second-hand book business."
After breakfast he set about initiating his new employee into the routine of the shop. As he moved about, explaining the arrangement of his shelves, he kept up a running commentary.
"Of course all the miscellaneous information that a bookseller has to have will only come to you gradually," he said. "Such tags of bookshop lore as the difference between Philo Gubb and Philip Gibbs, Mrs. Wilson Woodrow and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, and all that sort of thing. Don't be frightened by all the ads you see for a book called "Bell and Wing," because no one was ever heard to ask for a copy. That's one of the reasons why I tell Mr. Gilbert I don't believe in advertising. Someone may ask you who wrote The Winning of the Best, and you'll have to know it wasn't Colonel Roosevelt but Mr. Ralph Waldo Trine. The beauty of being a bookseller is that you don't have to be a literary critic: all you have to do to books is enjoy them. A literary critic is the kind of fellow who will tell you that Wordsworth's Happy Warrior is a poem of 85 lines composed entirely of two sentences, one of 26 lines and one of 59. What does it matter if Wordsworth wrote sentences almost as long as those of Walt Whitman or Mr. Will H. Hays, if only he wrote a great poem? Literary critics are queer birds. There's Professor Phelps of Yale, for instance. He publishes a book in 1918 and calls it The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century. To my way of thinking a book of that title oughtn't to be published until 2018. Then somebody will come along and ask you for a book of poems about a typewriter, and by and by you'll learn that what they want is Stevenson's Underwoods. Yes, it's a complicated life. Never argue with customers. Just give them the book they ought to have even if they don't know they want it." They went outside the front door, and Roger lit his pipe. In the little area in front of the shop windows stood large empty boxes supported on trestles. "The first thing I always do----," he said.
"The first thing you'll both do is catch your death of cold," said Helen over his shoulder. "Titania, you run and get your fur. Roger, go and find your cap. With your bald head, you ought to know better!"
When they returned to the front door, Titania's blue eyes were sparkling above her soft tippet.
"I applaud your taste in furs," said Roger. "That is just the colour of tobacco smoke." He blew a whiff against it to prove the likeness. He felt very talkative, as most older men do when a young girl looks as delightfully listenable as Titania.
"What an adorable little place," said Titania, looking round at the bookshop's space of private pavement, which was sunk below the street level. "You could put tables out here and serve tea in summer time."
"The first thing every morning," continued Roger, "I set out the ten-cent stuff in these boxes. I take it in at night and stow it in these bins. When it rains, I shove out an awning, which is mighty good business. Someone is sure to take shelter, and spend the time in looking over the books. A really heavy shower is often worth fifty or sixty cents. Once a week I change my pavement stock. This week I've got mostly fiction out here. That's the sort of thing that comes in in unlimited numbers. A good deal of it's tripe, but it serves its purpose."
"Aren't they rather dirty?" said Titania doubtfully, looking at some little blue Rollo books, on which the siftings of generations had accumulated. "Would you mind if I dusted them off a bit?"
"It's almost unheard of in the second-hand trade," said Roger; "but it might make them look better."
Titania ran inside, borrowed a duster from Helen, and began housecleaning the grimy boxes, while Roger chatted away in high spirits. Bock already noticing the new order of things, squatted on the doorstep with an air of being a party to the conversation. Morning pedestrians on Gissing Street passed by, wondering who the bookseller's engaging assistant might be. "I wish I could find a maid like that," thought a prosperous Brooklyn housewife on her way to market. "I must ring her up some day and find out how much she gets."
Roger brought out armfuls of books while Titania dusted.
"One of the reasons I'm awfully glad you've come here to help me," he said, "is that I'll be able to get out more. I've been so tied down by the shop, I haven't had a chance to scout round, buy up libraries, make bids on collections that are being sold, and all that sort of thing. My stock is running a bit low. If you just wait for what comes in, you don't get much of the really good stuff."
Titania was polishing a copy of The Late Mrs. Null. "It must be wonderful to have read so many books," she said. "I'm afraid I'm not a very deep reader, but at any rate Dad has taught me a respect for good books. He gets So mad because when my friends come to the house, and he asks them what they've been reading, the only thing they seem to know about is Dere Mable."
Roger chuckled. "I hope you don't think I'm a mere highbrow," he said. "As a customer said to me once, without meaning to be funny, `I like both the Iliad and the Argosy.' The only thing I can't stand is literature that is unfairly and intentionally flavoured with vanilla. Confectionery soon disgusts the palate, whether you find it in Marcus Aurelius or Doctor Crane. There's an odd aspect of the matter that sometimes strikes me: Doc Crane's remarks are just as true as Lord Bacon's, so how is it that the Doctor puts me to sleep in a paragraph, while my Lord's essays keep me awake all night?"
Titania, being unacquainted with these philosophers, pursued the characteristic feminine course of clinging to the subject on which she was informed. The undiscerning have called this habit of mind irrelevant, but wrongly. The feminine intellect leaps like a grasshopper; the masculine plods as the ant.
"I see there's a new Mable book coming," she said. "It's called That's Me All Over Mable, and the newsstand clerk at the Octagon says he expects to sell a thousand copies."
"Well, there's a meaning in that," said Roger. "People have a craving to be amused, and I'm sure I don't blame 'em. I'm afraid I haven't read Dere Mable. If it's really amusing, I'm glad they read it. I suspect it isn't a very great book, because a Philadelphia schoolgirl has written a reply to it called Dere Bill, which is said to be as good as the original. Now you can hardly imagine a Philadelphia flapper writing an effective companion to Bacon's Essays. But never mind, if the stuff's amusing, it has its place. The human yearning for innocent pastime is a pathetic thing, come to think about it. It shows what a desperately grim thing life has become. One of the most significant things I know is that breathless, expectant, adoring hush that falls over a theatre at a Saturday matinee, when the house goes dark and the footlights set the bottom of the curtain in a glow, and the latecomers tank over your feet climbing into their seats----"
"Isn't it an adorable moment!" cried Titania.
"Yes, it is," said Roger; "but it makes me sad to see what tosh is handed out to that eager, expectant audience, most of the time. There they all are, ready to be thrilled, eager to be worked upon, deliberately putting themselves into that glorious, rare, receptive mood when they are clay in the artist's hand--and Lord! what miserable substitutes for joy and sorrow are put over on them! Day after day I see people streaming into theatres and movies, and I know that more than half the time they are on a blind quest, thinking they are satisfied when in truth they are fed on paltry husks. And the sad part about it is that if you let yourself think you are satisfied with husks, you'll have no appetite left for the real grain."
Titania wondered, a little panic-stricken, whether she had been permitting herself to be satisfied with husks. She remembered how greatly she had enjoyed a Dorothy Gish film a few evenings before. "But," she ventured, "you said people want to be amused. And if they laugh and look happy, surely they're amused?"
"They only think they are!" cried Mifflin. "They think they're amused because they don't know what real amusement is! Laughter and prayer are the two noblest habits of man; they mark us off from the brutes. To laugh at cheap jests is as base as to pray to cheap gods. To laugh at Fatty Arbuckle is to degrade the human spirit."
Titania thought she was getting in rather deep, but she had the tenacious logic of every healthy girl. She said:
"But a joke that seems cheap to you doesn't seem cheap to the person who laughs at it, or he wouldn't laugh."
Her face brightened as a fresh idea flooded her mind:
"The wooden image a savage prays to may seem cheap to you, but it's the best god he knows, and it's all right for him to pray to it."
"Bully for you," said Roger. "Perfectly true. But I've got away from the point I had in mind. Humanity is yearning now as it never did before for truth, for beauty, for the things that comfort and console and make life seem worth while. I feel this all round me, every day. We've been through a frightful ordeal, and every decent spirit is asking itself what we can do to pick up the fragments and remould the world nearer to our heart's desire. Look here, here's something I found the other day in John Masefield's preface to one of his plays: "The truth and rapture of man are holy things, not lightly to be scorned. A carelessness of life and beauty marks the glutton, the idler, and the fool in their deadly path across history." "I tell you, I've done some pretty sober thinking as I've sat here in my bookshop during the past horrible years. Walt Whitman wrote a little poem during the Civil War--Year that trembled and reeled beneath me, said Walt, Must I learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled, and sullen hymns of defeat?--I've sat here in my shop at night, and looked round at my shelves, looked at all the brave books that house the hopes and gentlenesses and dreams of men and women, and wondered if they were all wrong, discredited, defeated. Wondered if the world were still merely a jungle of fury. I think I'd have gone balmy if it weren't for Walt Whitman. Talk about Mr. Britling--Walt was the man who `saw it through.'
"The glutton, the idler, and the fool in their deadly path across history. . . . Aye, a deadly path indeed. The German military men weren't idlers, but they were gluttons and fools to the nth power. Look at their deadly path! And look at other deadly paths, too. Look at our slums, jails, insane asylums. . .
"I used to wonder what I could do to justify my comfortable existence here during such a time of horror. What right had I to shirk in a quiet bookshop when so many men were suffering and dying through no fault of their own? I tried to get into an ambulance unit, but I've had no medical training and they said they didn't want men of my age unless they were experienced doctors."
"I know how you felt," said Titania, with a surprising look of comprehension. "Don't you suppose that a great many girls, who couldn't do anything real to help, got tired of wearing neat little uniforms with Sam Browne belts?"
"Well," said Roger, "it was a bad time. The war contradicted and denied everything I had ever lived for. Oh, I can't tell you how I felt about it. I can't even express it to myself. Sometimes I used to feel as I think that truly noble simpleton Henry Ford may have felt when he organized his peace voyage-- that I would do anything, however stupid, to stop it all. In a world where everyone was so wise and cynical and cruel, it was admirable to find a man so utterly simple and hopeful as Henry. A boob, they called him. Well, I say bravo for boobs! I daresay most of the apostles were boobs--or maybe they called them bolsheviks."
Titania had only the vaguest notion about bolsheviks, but she had seen a good many newspaper cartoons.
"I guess Judas was a bolshevik," she said innocently.
"Yes, and probably George the Third called Ben Franklin a bolshevik," retorted Roger. "The trouble is, truth and falsehood don't come laid out in black and white--Truth and Huntruth, as the wartime joke had it. Sometimes I thought Truth had vanished from the earth," he cried bitterly. "Like everything else, it was rationed by the governments. I taught myself to disbelieve half of what I read in the papers. I saw the world clawing itself to shreds in blind rage. I saw hardly any one brave enough to face the brutalizing absurdity as it really was, and describe it. I saw the glutton, the idler, and the fool applauding, while brave and simple men walked in the horrors of hell. The stay-at-home poets turned it to pretty lyrics of glory and sacrifice. Perhaps half a dozen of them have told the truth. Have you read Sassoon? Or Latzko's Men in War, which was so damned true that the government suppressed it? Humph! Putting Truth on rations!"
He knocked out his pipe against his heel, and his blue eyes shone with a kind of desperate earnestness.
"But I tell you, the world is going to have the truth about War. We're going to put an end to this madness. It's not going to be easy. Just now, in the intoxication of the German collapse, we're all rejoicing in our new happiness. I tell you, the real Peace will be a long time coming. When you tear up all the fibres of civilization it's a slow job to knit things together again. You see those children going down the street to school? Peace lies in their hands. When they are taught in school that War is the most loathsome scourge humanity is subject to, that it smirches and fouls every lovely occupation of the mortal spirit, then there may be some hope for the future. But I'd like to bet they are having it drilled into them that war is a glorious and noble sacrifice.
"The people who write poems about the divine frenzy of going over the top are usually those who dipped their pens a long, long way from the slimy duckboards of the trenches. It's funny how we hate to face realities. I knew a commuter once who rode in town every day on the 8.13. But he used to call it the 7.73. He said it made him feel more virtuous."
There was a pause, while Roger watched some belated urchins hurrying toward school.
"I think any man would be a traitor to humanity who didn't pledge every effort of his waking life to an attempt to make war impossible in future."
"Surely no one would deny that," said Titania. "But I do think the war was very glorious as well as very terrible. I've known lots of men who went over, knowing well what they were to face, and yet went gladly and humbly in the thought they were going for a true cause."
"A cause which is so true shouldn't need the sacrifice of millions of fine lives," said Roger gravely. "Don't imagine I don't see the dreadful nobility of it. But poor humanity shouldn't be asked to be noble at such a cost. That's the most pitiful tragedy of it all. Don't you suppose the Germans thought they too were marching off for a noble cause when they began it and forced this misery on the world? They had been educated to believe so, for a generation. That's the terrible hypnotism of war, the brute mass-impulse, the pride and national spirit, the instinctive simplicity of men that makes them worship what is their own above everything else. I've thrilled and shouted with patriotic pride, like everyone. Music and flags and men marching in step have bewitched me, as they do all of us. And then I've gone home and sworn to root this evil instinct out of my soul. God help us-- let's love the world, love humanity--not just our own country! That's why I'm so keen about the part we're going to play at the Peace Conference. Our motto over there will be America Last! Hurrah for us, I say, for we shall be the only nation over there with absolutely no axe to grind. Nothing but a pax to grind!"
It argued well for Titania's breadth of mind that she was not dismayed nor alarmed at the poor bookseller's anguished harangue. She surmised sagely that he was cleansing his bosom of much perilous stuff. In some mysterious way she had learned the greatest and rarest of the spirit's gifts--toleration.
"You can't help loving your country," she said.
"Let's go indoors," he answered. "You'll catch cold out here. I want to show you my alcove of books on the war."
"Of course one can't help loving one's country," he added. "I love mine so much that I want to see her take the lead in making a new era possible. She has sacrificed least for war, she should be ready to sacrifice most for peace. As for me," he said, smiling, "I'd be willing to sacrifice the whole Republican party!"
"I don't see why you call the war an absurdity," said Titania. "We HAD to beat Germany, or where would civilization have been?"
"We had to beat Germany, yes, but the absurdity lies in the fact that we had to beat ourselves in doing it. The first thing you'll find, when the Peace Conference gets to work, will be that we shall have to help Germany onto her feet again so that she can be punished in an orderly way. We shall have to feed her and admit her to commerce so that she can pay her indemnities--we shall have to police her cities to prevent revolution from burning her up--and the upshot of it all will be that men will have fought the most terrible war in history, and endured nameless horrors, for the privilege of nursing their enemy back to health. If that isn't an absurdity, what is? That's what happens when a great nation like Germany goes insane.
"Well, we're up against some terribly complicated problems. My only consolation is that I think the bookseller can play as useful a part as any man in rebuilding the world's sanity. When I was fretting over what I could do to help things along, I came across two lines in my favourite poet that encouraged me. Good old George Herbert says:
"Certainly running a second-hand bookstore is a pretty humble calling, but I've mixed a grain of glory with it, in my own imagination at any rate. You see, books contain the thoughts and dreams of men, their hopes and strivings and all their immortal parts. It's in books that most of us learn how splendidly worth-while life is. I never realized the greatness of the human spirit, the indomitable grandeur of man's mind, until I read Milton's Areopagitica. To read that great outburst of splendid anger ennobles the meanest of us simply because we belong to the same species of animal as Milton. Books are the immortality of the race, the father and mother of most that is worth while cherishing in our hearts. To spread good books about, to sow them on fertile minds, to propagate understanding and a carefulness of life and beauty, isn't that high enough mission for a man? The bookseller is the real Mr. Valiant-For-Truth.
"Here's my War-alcove," he went on. "I've stacked up here most of the really good books the War has brought out. If humanity has sense enough to take these books to heart, it will never get itself into this mess again. Printer's ink has been running a race against gunpowder these many, many years. Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries. There's Hardy's Dynasts for example. When you read that book you can feel it blowing up your mind. It leaves you gasping, ill, nauseated--oh, it's not pleasant to feel some really pure intellect filtered into one's brain! It hurts! There's enough T. N. T. in that book to blast war from the face of the globe. But there's a slow fuse attached to it. It hasn't really exploded yet. Maybe it won't for another fifty years.
"In regard to the War, think what books have accomplished. What was the first thing all the governments started to do-- publish books! Blue Books, Yellow Books, White Books, Red Books-- everything but Black Books, which would have been appropriate in Berlin. They knew that guns and troops were helpless unless they could get the books on their side, too. Books did as much as anything else to bring America into the war. Some German books helped to wipe the Kaiser off his throne--_I_ Accuse, and Dr. Muehlon's magnificent outburst The Vandal of Europe, and Lichnowsky's private memorandum, that shook Germany to her foundations, simply because he told the truth. Here's that book Men in War, written I believe by a Hungarian officer, with its noble dedication "To Friend and Foe." Here are some of the French books--books in which the clear, passionate intellect of that race, with its savage irony, burns like a flame. Romain Rolland's Au-Dessus de la Melee, written in exile in Switzerland; Barbusse's terrible Le Feu; Duhamel's bitter Civilization; Bourget's strangely fascinating novel The Meaning of Death. And the noble books that have come out of England: A Student in Arms; The Tree of Heaven; Why Men Fight, by Bertrand Russell--I'm hoping he'll write one on Why Men Are Imprisoned: you know he was locked up for his sentiments! And here's one of the most moving of all-- The Letters of Arthur Heath, a gentle, sensitive young Oxford tutor who was killed on the Western front. You ought to read that book. It shows the entire lack of hatred on the part of the English. Heath and his friends, the night before they enlisted, sat up singing the German music they had loved, as a kind of farewell to the old, friendly joyous life. Yes, that's the kind of thing War does-- wipes out spirits like Arthur Heath. Please read it. Then you'll have to read Philip Gibbs, and Lowes Dickinson and all the young poets. Of course you've read Wells already. Everybody has."
"How about the Americans?" said Titania. "Haven't they written anything about the war that's worth while?"
"Here's One that I found a lot of meat in, streaked with philosophical gristle," said Roger, relighting his pipe. He pulled out a copy of Professor Latimer's Progress. "There was one passage that I remember marking--let's see now, what was it?--Yes, here!
There is no knowing how long the bookseller's monologue might have continued, but at this moment Helen appeared from the kitchen.
"Good gracious, Roger!" she exclaimed, "I've heard your voice piping away for I don't know how long. What are you doing, giving the poor child a Chautauqua lecture? You must want to frighten her out of the book business."
Roger looked a little sheepish. "My dear," he said, "I was only laying down a few of the principles underlying the art of bookselling----"
"It was very interesting, honestly it was," said Titania brightly. Mrs. Mifflin, in a blue check apron and with plump arms floury to the elbow, gave her a wink--or as near a wink as a woman ever achieves (ask the man who owns one).
"Whenever Mr. Mifflin feels very low in his mind about the business," she said, "he falls back on those highly idealized sentiments. He knows that next to being a parson, he's got into the worst line there is, and he tries bravely to conceal it from himself."
"I think it's too bad to give me away before Miss Titania," said Roger, smiling, so Titania saw this was merely a family joke.
"Really truly," she protested, "I'm having a lovely time. I've been learning all about Professor Latimer who wrote The Handle of Europe, and all sorts of things. I've been afraid every minute that some customer would come in and interrupt us."
"No fear of that," said Helen. "They're scarce in the early morning." She went back to her kitchen.
"Well, Miss Titania," resumed Roger. "You see what I'm driving at. I want to give people an entirely new idea about bookshops. The grain of glory that I hope will cure both my fever and my lethargicness is my conception of the bookstore as a power-house, a radiating place for truth and beauty. I insist books are not absolutely dead things: they are as lively as those fabulous dragons' teeth, and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. How about Bernhardi? Some of my Corn Cob friends tell me books are just merchandise. Pshaw!"
"I haven't read much of Bernard Shaw" said Titania.
"Did you ever notice how books track you down and hunt you out? They follow you like the hound in Francis Thompson's poem. They know their quarry! Look at that book The Education of Henry Adams! Just watch the way it's hounding out thinking people this winter. And The Four Horsemen--you can see it racing in the veins of the reading people. It's one of the uncanniest things I know to watch a real book on its career--it follows you and follows you and drives you into a corner and MAKES you read it. There's a queer old book that's been chasing me for years: The Life and Opinions of John Buncle, Esq., it's called. I've tried to escape it, but every now and then it sticks up its head somewhere. It'll get me some day, and I'll be compelled to read it. Ten Thousand a Year trailed me the same way until I surrendered. Words can't describe the cunning of some books. You'll think you've shaken them off your trail, and then one day some innocent-looking customer will pop in and begin to talk, and you'll know he's an unconscious agent of book-destiny. There's an old sea-captain who drops in here now and then. He's simply the novels of Captain Marryat put into flesh. He has me under a kind of spell: I know I shall have to read Peter Simple before I die, just because the old fellow loves it so. That's why I call this place the Haunted Bookshop. Haunted by the ghosts of the books I haven't read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There's only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it."
"I know what you mean," said Titania. "I haven't read much Bernard Shaw, but I feel I shall have to. He meets me at every turn, bullying me. And I know lots of people who are simply terrorized by H. G. Wells. Every time one of his books comes out, and that's pretty often, they're in a perfect panic until they've read it."
Roger chuckled. "Some have even been stampeded into subscribing to the New Republic for that very purpose."
"But speaking of the Haunted Bookshop, what's your special interest in that Oliver Cromwell book?"
"Oh, I'm glad you mentioned it," said Roger. "I must put it back in its place on the shelf." He ran back to the den to get it, and just then the bell clanged at the door. A customer came in, and the one-sided gossip was over for the time being.
We care about eBooks because we care about the environment.
Copyright © 2000- Literature Project. All Rights Reserved.