The Luxury of Reading in Bed

By Eugene Field.

Last night, I bethought me to renew my acquaintance with some of those tales which so often have delighted and solaced me. So I piled at least twenty chosen volumes on the table at the head of my bed, and I daresay it was nigh daylight when I fell asleep. I began my entertainment with several pages from Keightley's "Fairy Mythology," and followed it up with random bits from Crofton Croker's "Traditions of the South of Ireland," Mrs. Carey's "Legends of the French Provinces," Andrew Lang's Green, Blue and Red fairy books, Laboulaye's "Last Fairy Tales," Hauff's "The Inn in the Spessart," Julia Goddard's "Golden Weathercock," Frere's "Eastern Fairy Legends," Asbjornsen's "Folk Tales," Susan Pindar's "Midsummer Fays," Nisbit Bain's "Cossack Fairy Tales," etc., etc.

I fell asleep with a copy of Villamaria's fairy stories in my hands, and I had a delightful dream wherein, under the protection and guidance of my fairy godmother, I undertook the rescue of a beautiful princess who had been enchanted by a cruel witch and was kept in prison by the witch's son, a hideous ogre with seven heads, whose companions were four equally hideous dragons.

This undertaking in which I was engaged involved a period of five years, but time is of precious little consideration to one when he is dreaming of exploits achieved in behalf of a beautiful princess. My fairy godmother (she wore a mob-cap and was hunchbacked) took good care of me, and conducted me safely through all my encounters with demons, giants, dragons, witches, serpents, hippogriffins, ogres, etc.; and I had just rescued the princess and broken the spell which bound her, and we were about to "live in peace to the end of our lives," when I awoke to find it was all a dream, and that the gas- light over my bed had been blazing away during the entire period of my five-year war for the delectable maiden.

This incident gives me an opportunity to say that observation has convinced me that all good and true book-lovers practise the pleasing and improving avocation of reading in bed. Indeed, I fully believe with Judge Methuen that no book can be appreciated until it has been slept with and dreamed over. You recall, perhaps, that eloquent passage in his noble defence of the poet Archias, wherein Cicero (not Kikero) refers to his own pursuit of literary studies: "Haec studia adolescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant; secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solatium praebent; delectant domi, non impediunt foris; pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur!"

By the gods! you spoke tally, friend Cicero; for it is indeed so, that these pursuits nourish our earlier and delight our later years, dignifying the minor details of life and affording a perennial refuge and solace; at home they please us and in no vocation elsewhere do they embarrass us; they are with us by night, they go with us upon our travels, and even upon our retirement into the country do they accompany us!

I have italicized pernoctant because it is that word which demonstrates beyond all possibility of doubt that Cicero made a practice of reading in bed. Why, I can almost see him now, propped up in his couch, unrolling scroll after scroll of his favorite literature, and enjoying it mightily, too, which enjoyment is interrupted now and then by the occasion which the noble reader takes to mutter maledictions upon the slave who has let the lamp run low of oil or has neglected to trim the wick.

"Peregrinantur?" Indeed, they do share our peregrinations, these literary pursuits do. If Thomas Hearne (of blessed memory!) were alive to-day he would tell us that he used always to take a book along with him whenever he went walking, and was wont to read it as he strolled along. On several occasions (as he tells us in his diary) he became so absorbed in his reading that he missed his way and darkness came upon him before he knew it.

I have always wondered why book-lovers have not had more to say of Hearne, for assuredly he was as glorious a collector as ever felt the divine fire glow within him. His character is exemplified in this prayer, which is preserved among other papers of his in the Bodleian Library:

"O most gracious and merciful Lord God, wonderful is Thy providence. I return all possible thanks to Thee for the care Thou hast always taken of me. I continually meet with most signal instances of this Thy providence, and one act yesterday, when I unexpectedly met with three old MSS., for which, in a particular manner, I return my thanks, beseeching Thee to continue the same protection to me, a poor, helpless sinner," etc.

Another prayer of Hearne's, illustrative of his faith in dependence upon Divine counsel, was made at the time Hearne was importuned by Dr. Bray, commissary to my Lord Bishop of London, "to go to Mary-Land" in the character of a missionary.

"O Lord God, Heavenly Father, look down upon me with pity," cries this pious soul, "and be pleased to be my guide, now I am importuned to leave the place where I have been educated in the university. And of Thy great goodness I humbly desire Thee to signify to me what is most proper for me to do in this affair."

Another famous man who made a practice of reading books as he walked the highways was Dr. Johnson, and it is recorded that he presented a curious spectacle indeed, for his shortsightedness compelled him to hold the volume close to his nose, and he shuffled along, rather than walked, stepping high over shadows and stumbling over sticks and stones.

But, perhaps, the most interesting story illustrative of the practice of carrying one's reading around with one is that which is told of Professor Porson, the Greek scholar. This human monument of learning happened to be travelling in the same coach with a coxcomb who sought to air his pretended learning by quotations from the ancients. At last old Porson asked:

"Pri'thee, sir, whence comes that quotation?"

"From Sophocles,"quoth the vain fellow.

"Be so kind as to find it for me?" asked Porson, producing a copy of Sophocles from his pocket.

Then the coxcomb, not at all abashed, said that he meant not Sophocles, but Euripides. Whereupon Porson drew from another pocket a copy of Euripides and challenged the upstart to find the quotation in question. Full of confusion, the fellow thrust his head out of the window of the coach and cried to the driver:

"In heaven's name, put me down at once; for there is an old gentleman in here that hath the Bodleian Library in his pocket!"

Porson himself was a veritable slave to the habit of reading in bed. He would lie down with his books piled around him, then light his pipe and start in upon some favorite volume. A jug of liquor was invariably at hand, for Porson was a famous drinker. It is related that on one occasion he fell into a boosy slumber, his pipe dropped out of his mouth and set fire to the bed-clothes. But for the arrival of succor the tipsy scholar would surely have been cremated.

Another very slovenly fellow was De Quincey, and he was devoted to reading in bed. But De Quincey was a very vandal when it came to the care and use of books. He never returned volumes he borrowed, and he never hesitated to mutilate a rare book in order to save himself the labor and trouble of writing out a quotation.

But perhaps the person who did most to bring reading in bed into evil repute was Mrs. Charles Elstob, ward and sister of the Canon of Canterbury (circa 1700). In his "Dissertation on Letter-Founders," Rowe Mores describes this woman as the "indefessa comes" of her brother's studies, a female student in Oxford. She was, says Mores, a northern lady of an ancient family and a genteel fortune, "but she pursued too much the drug called learning, and in that pursuit failed of being careful of any one thing necessary. In her latter years she was tutoress in the family of the Duke of Portland, where we visited her in her sleeping-room at Bulstrode, surrounded with books and dirtiness, the usual appendages of folk of learning!"

There is another word which Cicero uses---for I have still somewhat more to say of that passage from the oration "pro Archia poeta"---the word "rusticantur," which indicates that civilization twenty centuries ago made a practice of taking books out into the country for summer reading. "These literary pursuits rusticate with us," says Cicero, and thus he presents to us a pen- picture of the Roman patrician stretched upon the cool grass under the trees, perusing the latest popular romance, while, forsooth, in yonder hammock his dignified spouse swings slowly to and fro, conning the pages and the colored plates of the current fashion journal. Surely in the telltale word "rusticantur" you and I and the rest of human nature find a worthy precedent and much encouragement for our practice of loading up with plenty of good reading before we start for the scene of our annual summering.

As for myself, I never go away from home that I do not take a trunkful of books with me, for experience has taught me that there is no companionship better than that of these friends, who, however much all things else may vary, always give the same response to my demand upon their solace and their cheer. My sister, Miss Susan, has often inveighed against this practice of mine, and it was only yesterday that she informed me that I was the most exasperating man in the world.

However, as Miss Susan's experience with men during the sixty-seven hot summers and sixty-eight hard winters of her life has been somewhat limited, I think I should bear her criticism without a murmur. Miss Susan is really one of the kindest creatures in all the world. It is her misfortune that she has had all her life an insane passion for collecting crockery, old pewter, old brass, old glass, old furniture and other trumpery of that character; a passion with which I have little sympathy. I do not know that Miss Susan is prouder of her collection of all this folderol than she is of the fact that she is a spinster.

This latter peculiarity asserts itself upon every occasion possible. I recall an unpleasant scene in the omnibus last winter, when the obsequious conductor, taking advantage of my sister's white hair and furrowed cheeks, addressed that estimable lady as "Madam." I'd have you know that my sister gave the fellow to understand very shortly and in very vigorous English (emphasized with her blue silk umbrella) that she was Miss Susan, and that she did not intend to be Madamed by anybody, under any condition.


This is taken from The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.





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