Our book today is I Have a Book, a charming little 1940 curiosity by George and Eleanor Stewart that’s part practical-living guide and part love-letter to books. The pair were well-suited to the task: Eleanor Warren Stewart was a marvellously inventive and inspired interior designer, a sharp-elbowed cookie who could always see the single key little change that would transform any space, and George Stewart (not to be confused with the other George Stewart, the criminally underestimated genius who wrote not only the seminal Earth Abides but also the great Names on the Land) was a publishing trouper from time immemorial and thus deeply familiar with the eerie way you’ll be looking at an end-table with two books stacked on it, you’ll look away for a second, and when you look back there are suddenly sixteen books stacked there. The two of them made an art out of the simple, brutal necessity of living with one’s books, and in the boom years following the end of the Great Depression, when quality affordable books were suddenly flooding the urban markets (stalls on sidewalks! stalls in subway stations! stalls on subway platforms!), that art was in unexpectedly high demand. Hence, I Have a Book with its charming little illustrations, its simple, practical suggestions, and its tongue-in-cheek title. This little book addresses a problem that was as rare in human history as it was wonderful: what do you do when you start to accumulate a personal library?
The Stewarts make some 1940s assumptions, of course. They assume you’ll have a house of your own – perhaps even that you’ll be building a house of your own. They good-naturedly grant that some young people just starting out in life might not have the resources to own their own home quite yet, and they understand that some elderly people might want to explore the adventure of apartment-living as a respite from the expense and bother of rambling around their big old house, but still: the gist of I Have a Book is aimed at home-owners, with clear, passionate little sections devoted to every corner of that private castle:
There is no more suitable place in your home for books than the living room. Here new acquaintances and old friends share your hospitality. The warmth and richness of your personality seek expression here, where you can fold your legs and have out your talk as old Doctor Johnson loved to do.
That quick ‘hello’ to Doctor Johnson is a dead give-away that we’re talking about an earlier, more civilized time, as if the mention of hutches and guest rooms and dens weren’t enough. And all throughout the book (a slim little thing, suitable for shelving just about anywhere), that tone of bookish clubbiness alternates with – almost contends with – a tone of businesslike problem-solving, the voice of Eleanor as she walks us over to that slightly dim, slightly awkward corner of a room or hallway and points out – briskly, but gently – just how to turn it around, and how books can be part of that process. For most book-people, her picture-postcard version of things will be almost heartbreaking:
When we face the problems of tying together all the component parts of any room, in an effort to put them into a friendly relationship, we sigh for the four-square room and its simplified balance, for its doors and windows properly located for our needs. But the more difficult room requires more thought and ingenuity, and our greater efforts on it frequently result in more interesting decorative effects. Books are valuable allies in a campaign like this.
For most life-long book people, books have long since stopped being allies of the kind described here and become rather a stubborn, strutting, slightly sullen occupying army, one that’s long since overrun the polite boundaries it originally observed and is now billeted in virtually every open space in the entire home. Those book people know they have something of a problem (“flaw” seems somehow the wrong word to describe something so glorious); they know they acquire too many books, yet they go right on doing it. They know also that their living space isn’t expanding at all (with the exception of some old Cape Cod friends of mine who actually did expand their collection-space periodically – they kept their books in a big weatherized barn behind their house, and every year they added a little extension, which promptly filled), but they keep lugging books home and haphazardly finding room for them all. To these people, some of the prim, no-nonsense advice in I Have a Book will be almost unbearably bittersweet – it’s tough to read about the various ways a potted plant can tastefully set off the small bookended half-dozen books that perfectly compliment the top of Eleanor’s dresser when your dresser is not only piled ten inches high with books but also has books, not clothes, in all its drawers.
Fortunately, George pops in often to talk about the actual content of the books. For instance, since he’s living in the benighted time before Stevereads, he warns against following book-advice too closely:
But in all your buying and reading of books, do your own thinking; don’t slavishly follow any reviewer or advertisements. Listen to your friend’s enthusiasms but consider your own. And don’t fall into the too common error of asking your bookseller, “What’s new?” Rather find out what’s good. Any book is new until you’ve read it.
(He recommends printed lists at your local library, for God’s sake. The poor sap.)
But for all his wayard caution about where you get your books, he’s definitely on the right page when it comes to where you read your books: in bed, like a normal person:
The oft quoted statement, “I could not lay the book down,” so dear to the hearts of publishers, suggests not only a good book at hand but a well entrenched habit of reading in bed. The innocent sense of luxury that a daring few once derived from this incurable habit has steadily infected a whole race of readers. They retire to their own rooms, doff their clothes, and in shorts or pajamas enter the freest state it is man’s privilege to know – the commonwealth of books.
That’s a lovely, lovely commonwealth! A crowded one, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.