It’s corny but true: Book people are always fussing with their shelves. Forget about the cliché of art books artfully arranged on the coffee table; forget about shoving that copy of Vogue underneath the London Review of Books when company’s coming. The tendency to be voyeuristic with one’s own home library and rearrange it now and again to satisfy some imaginary—or actual—guest is universal. So I’m a bit reassured to find out that such a literary lion as Charles Dickens did essentially the same thing, carrying his own bookshelf makeover to some pretty imaginative lengths.
When he moved into his new digs at Tavistock House in 1851, Dickens decided to fill some of his study shelves with a fairly extensive selection of new books. And not just any volumes—these were fake books, or as he described them, “imitation book-backs,” with a series of strange and fanciful titles he made up himself. He listed them in instructions to his bookbinder, and—as befits a man used to keeping large casts of characters in order—had very explicit ideas as to their order:
I should like the “History of a Short Chancery Suit” to come at the bottom of one recess, and the “Catalogue of Statues of the Duke of Wellington” at the bottom of the other.
Other titles included Captain Parry’s Virtues of Cold Tar, On the Use of Mercury by the Ancient Poets, and my favorite, The Quarrelly Review (four vols.), which sounds like it ought to be illustrated by Edward Gorey. While I have no idea if any survive, Flavorpill reports that the New York Public Library has recreated some of them for its new exhibition of Dickensian art and artifacts, Charles Dickens: The Key to Character. They’re quite lovely as a collection, even if they are empty suits.
But they don’t have to remain ghosts forever. Here’s a gimme for some enterprising literary blogger or list-loving completist looking for a project: Write Dickens’ imaginary books. Maybe not full-length works, nor all ten volumes of Kant’s Ancient Humbugs. But at the very least they’d be great writing prompts, for essays or short fiction or poetry. Or, hey—maybe some brave small press should take a few years and come out with the full series. Melville House? I’m thinking it looks like one of yours.
In the meantime, I’m working on Bowwowdom: A Poem, so I’ll be ready when Dickens’ Imaginary Library’s time comes.