The consolation of books

19 November 2021

With book sales through the roof during the pandemic, Magdalen Librarian, Dr Lucy Gwynn, explains why so many of us read for comfort in a time of crisis.

If there is one thing a librarian knows, it is that there is a book for every occasion. The father of modern library science S.R. Ranganathan wrote in 1931 that there is ‘for every reader, his or her book’. Since the pandemic began, many of us have felt the need to rely on our books to console and sustain us. I fled to the comfort-reading of my teenage years: Georgette Heyer’s regency romances and Diana Wynn Jones’s young adult fantasy novels. Others, keen to find a fictional or historical narrative to help make sense of their experiences, turned to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (first published in 1722), Camus’ The Plague (1947), or Emily St John Mandel’s suddenly relevant Station Eleven (2014). It’s a perennial response: we have always sought practical help, philosophical solace, reassuring empathy, and pure escapism from our books. Magdalen’s book collections include lovely examples of titles which gave consolation to past readers, a selection of which are described below.

1. The consolation of philosophy

Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophia is the first book to leap to mind: it was written as an exercise in solacing the self, and as one of the bestsellers of the medieval period provided a model for philosophical self-reliance in the face of misfortune. Boethius (c.477-534 AD) was a late Roman political leader from a good family with fortune on his side until he was arrested for conspiracy by the Ostrogothic King of Italy, Theodoric the Great, thrown into prison, and eventually executed. Whilst in prison he composed The Consolation, a dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy who reminds him that Fortune, gleefully spinning her wheel, can never supply lasting happiness. Only by abandoning transitory things like fame and riches and focusing on the things that Fortune cannot take away, virtue and reason, can we find real happiness.

Magdalen has many copies of Boethius’s work, but the most interesting must be the edition printed by William Caxton. Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England, printed Boethius in his workshop in Westminster in 1478. It was a sensible commercial choice of an extremely popular text, particularly as Caxton chose to publish in English as translated by the already famous author of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. Caxton’s edition of Boethius is typical of his printed works, with a florid typeface based on the handwriting of Flemish scribes, and gaps left for initial letters so that a book owner could pay for illuminated or painted initials according to their purse. It is a treasure of English print history.

2. A wealth of remedies

Robert Burton, whose 400th birthday falls this year, also wrote to soothe himself: he said that ‘I write of Melancholy by being busie to avoid Melancholy’. His Anatomy of Melancholy is a huge, copious encyclopedia of information on the causes, types, symptoms, and cures of melancholy gathered ‘out of a confused companie of notes’. It is a difficult read, partly because of the sheer mass of material Burton includes, but it addresses the common experience of undirected sadness and fear with wit and sincere sympathy of feeling. It was extremely popular, going through five, ever-larger editions in Burton’s lifetime. It also has one of the most gloriously haphazard indexes ever produced.

Our contemporary copy is the fifth edition of 1638. It is sadly battered, and the distinctive engraved title page is incomplete. But the inscription suggests that Burton himself gave this copy to Magdalen in the year it was printed. He probably knew his audience: the fact that our copy is well-worn may suggest that melancholy was familiar to Magdalen’s scholars and that they sought remedy in The Anatomy of Melancholy. 


3. Travel by proxy

Burton lived almost all his adult life in Oxford and wrote that all his travelling had been done through travel books and printed maps and views. Very few of us have been able to travel far this year, and we may have compensated by using guides and online brochures to plan future adventures. In centuries when travel was slow and expensive, many people relied on travel narratives and books of views of exotic places to conjure up the world beyond their reach.

One of the most evocative books about a foreign region in Magdalen’s collections is William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei, published in Naples in 1776. Hamilton describes in it the ‘flaming fields’ in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius, which he had observed first hand as Britain’s envoy to the Spanish court at Naples. A scientific record of volcanic activity, the lavishly illustrated Campi Phlegraei includes illustrations of eruptions (above), but also of archaeological digs, geological specimens, and vistas across the Bay of Naples.

4. A joy forever

There is much pleasure to be gained from beautiful works of art and medieval Books of Hours are among the finest artistic productions from the Middle Ages. The artistic skill and rich materials dedicated to the Book of Hours – a compilation of liturgy, prayers, and Biblical extracts – also had a spiritual purpose. Including images with accurate perspective and immaculately rendered detail allowed the user of the book to meditate on the events depicted and empathise with the characters involved. The gold leaf and costly minerals used to make brilliant colours reminded the book’s user that the book and its contents were sacred and should be handled with reverence.

Magdalen is lucky to have several Books of Hours. MS 252 is the smallest (barely nine centimetres tall), and one of the most beautiful, with its ornately-decorated borders and fullpage illustrations (below). Each page of the tiny volume has a wide border covered in florid decoration. Pages from the beginning of the Office for the Dead depict black-robed mourners and monks around a catafalque. Praying for the dead would have offered further comfort to a late medieval user of this book, offering an active, ongoing relationship with the souls of departed loved ones now in Purgatory.

Book of Hours 2

5. Et in Arcadia Ego

The pastoral genre, superficially, provides a place to which readers and writers can escape. It presents an idealised rural idyll populated with shepherds and nymphs, all engaged in a simple, contented life unencumbered by the corruption and labour of the city. Many pastoral works, from Hesiod’s Works and Days to Shakespeare’s As You Like It to Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Church-Yard, have more complicated things to say, revealing a tension between the ideal and the realities of rural life, and using the pastoral mode as an oblique means of political criticism. But Virgil’s Georgics, one of the founding texts for the pastoral genre, have been a touchstone for many modern readers in times of trouble. The Georgics were themselves composed in the immediate aftermath of Rome’s bloody civil wars (44 BCE to 31 BCE), and many of the subsequent translations point to similar periods of upheaval in British history. These include the first English translation, written by John Ogilby during the second English Civil War, and Cecil Day-Lewis’s published in the dark year of 1940.

The edition shown here was published in Lyon in 1529, as Europe began a century of religious wars and social upheavals. The wonderfully animated woodcuts make this copy delightful. They were originally cut in Strasbourg in 1502, and show characters in detailed early 16th-century fashions in a richly detailed rural landscape.

6. Escaping the everyday

Finally, some novels provide us with a fictional escape – into the past, into other countries, and even into other worlds. There are many examples of such stories in Magdalen’s collections, including ripping yarns by Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling or science fiction by C.S. Lewis. But one of the most distinguished examples of ‘genre’ fiction is our copy of George Eliot’s Romola (1862-1863). Romola was Eliot’s fourth novel, set in Renaissance Florence: the turbulent years between the death of Lorenzo de Medici in 1492 and the execution of Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola in 1498. Eliot spent four weeks in Florence in 1861 and researched extensively. It proved to be the least popular of Eliot’s novels, its narrative weighed down by its didactic antiquarianism. But its atmosphere is exquisitely evoked: the heat of the Florentine high summer rises off its pages.

Magdalen’s copy of Romola is outstanding. Romola was Eliot’s first novel to be published in serialised form in The Cornhill Magazine then edited by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Our copy is made up of the serialised text trimmed and bound together in a rich red leather binding. It is an invaluable example of a serialised novel from the age of Dickens, Gaskell, and Trollope.

All these lovely books are housed in the Old Library and have sustained Magdalen’s community throughout the centuries. We continue to offer books that support, entertain, and educate. Our collection of books for welfare and wellbeing continues to grow. And our ‘Blind Date with a Book’ initiative – in which any member of the College can sign up to be issued with an entirely frivolous book from our collections – was a runaway success! The library continues to be at the heart of Magdalen, consoling as well as stimulating.