Textual Corruption at Work

In 1852, John Leighton, under the pen name Luke Limner, published a list of twenty-nine “Notes on Books and Bindings,” with charming pieces of advice, such as “Never cut up a book with your finger, or divide a printed sheet if it be ill folded, or one page will rob the other of margin.” He published it in the July 31, 1852 issue of Notes and Queries, a kind of Victorian Ask Metafilter for scholarly questions about literature, language, and history. That issue was later collected in Volume 6 of the first series of Notes and Queries, at pages 94-95. You can read copies of it online through the Internet Archive or Google Books.

In 1870, John Power published A Handy-Book About Books, at pages 128-29 of which he reproduced Limner’s list. You can read copies of it online through the Internet Archive or Google Books. Power’s version has twenty-eight items, not twenty-nine. It cites to volume “v” rather than the correct “vi” of the collected Notes and Queries. And it is a royal mess. Compare, for example, some corresponding entries. Where Limner had:

Never lend a book without some acknowledgement from the borrower; as “I.O.U.—L.S.D.—‘Ten Thousand a Year’—L.L.D.”

Power has, simply:

Never lend a book without an acknowledgment.

Or Limner:

Never brand books in unseemly places, or deface them with inappropriate stamps; for to mar the beautiful is to rob after generations.

Versus Power:

Never brand books in unseemly places, or deface them with inappropriate stamps.

The one that most concerns me is the last item in the list. Limner’s version reads:

Never pull books out of the shelves by the headbands, nor toast them over the fire, or sit upon them; for “Books are kind friends, we benefit by their advice, and they exact no confessions.”

And here is Power’s:

Never pull a book from the shelves by the head-band; do not toast them over the fire, or on them, for “Books are kind friends, we benefit by their advice, and they reveal no confidences.”

Power has drained the vitality from Limner’s sentence; notice, for example, that he has managed to introduce a clash between the singular “book” and the plural “them.” Still, to modern ears, his final phrase is perhaps more powerful: “reveal no confidences” resonates in this age of digital books and privacy concerns. I found this latter version in Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf, who cites to Power. But still I wonder. Limner put the final string of clauses in quotation marks, which makes me think perhaps he got it from somewhere else.

A Manual of the Art of Bookbinding. Published in 1856, James B. Nicholson shares his “Hints to Book-Collectors”. We in the conservation department enjoyed the number of tips that still hold true today – be it how to correctly remove a book from the shelf (“Never pull books out of the shelves by the headbands…”)

Would seem to have been a popular book to borrow.

“Books are kind friends, we benefit by their advice, and they exact no confessions.”

the phrasing sounds a bit like Jonathan Swift? - In Swifts “Battle of the Books” Aesop awarded the laurels to the Honey Bee because in flitting from flower to flower she harms no one and her labor brings us honey and wax- and what , in a world that can be bitter and dark,could be more useful than “sweetness and light”.

………………………………………O honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Happy New Year!

Limner put the final string of clauses in quotation marks, which makes me think perhaps he got it from somewhere else.

I am sure you are right: he is quoting something. I cannot, however, find an instance of that sentence anywhere before the item in NQ. It is possible that he may be translating from another language.

The ‘books as friends and advisors’ metaphor is at least as old as Cicero (Ad Familiares, ix.1). It was a commonplace in the Renaissance: found, for instance, in Robert Greene, Ben Jonson and Francis Bacon, as well as some less well known authors.

A passage in Mateo Alemán’s novel Guzmán de Alfarache comes closest to ‘Limner”s sentence, though I do not think it is his immediate source:

A good booke is a good friend; nay I dare boldly say, there cannot be a better. For from thence, we may draw that utile & necessarium, that good and necessarie counsell, which we stand in need of, without incurring the shame, of that vaine and idle humour … to be rather content to continue still in ignorance, then by asking the question, to seeme to doubt of any thing. But to bookes, we may boldly put the question, and never need to be afraid, that they will bewray our ignorance: And besides, we shall receive this satisfaction from them, that they will faithfully, without flatterie, deliver us their opinion.

(Guzmán de Alfarache, Part II (1604), Book ii, Chap. 1, in James Mabbe’s 1623 translation)

Gillian glad to see that you are well!

I would defer to your judgment, but I feel the ‘voice’ of “we benefit by their advice” has a early 18C grace and wit about it?

This is a fascinating discussion.

I can’t find a source for the quote, either, though it has echoes of Bacon and Petrach in its insistence on books as friends. The part about “revealing no confessions” is very peculiar, however.

Leighton included the quote again in an article published under his own name in 1859 on “The formation of a library.” (The same information appears in a report on his talk in the Crayon.) He suggests that “Mottoes and quotations, either upon cornices or entablatures, are pleasing incentives to study,” and then gives some examples, including the quote James cites.

Analyzing the other quotes provides some sense of both whether and how accurately Leighton quoted. In general, he is pretty accurate - and he doesn’t feel the need to translate. This is perhaps not surprising coming from the apparent instigator of the book Moral emblems : with aphorisms, adages, and proverbs, of all ages and nations, from Jacob Cats and Robert Farlie. Leighton provided the illustrations, and he also provided the dedication (indicating that he was hoping to “revive a love for emblematical literature and art”).

Here are his examples and their sources:

  • A WISE BOOK IS A TRUE FRIEND. ITS AUTHOR A PUBLIC BENEFACTOR. (You can find this provided verbatim as a proverb in Samuel Maunder’s Biographical Treasury of 1838, but I suspect that there are earlier versions as well. Interestingly, Maunder has his proverbs framing the page on four sides: the same device that Leighton followed in his 1860 Moral Emblems book. Evidently Leighton liked the sentiment so much that he had it incorporated into the printer’s device for Longman, his publisher, when he published the Moral Emblems book in 1860 - or at least, I haven’t found an earlier use of the device.)

  • BOOKS TEACH US TO REFINE OUR PLEASURES WHEN YOUNG AND TO RECALL THEM WITH SATISFACTION WHEN OLD. (Actual quote from Leigh Hunt, A Book For a Corner: “It is those that teach us to refine our pleasures when young, and which, having so taught us, enable us to recall them with satisfaction when old”)

  • BOOKS ARE THE CHEAPEST ENTERTAINMENT AND THE MOST LASTING PLEASURES. (Not quite accurate. The quote is “No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting.” From the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. See, for example, this exemplar from 1803)

  • L’VNIVERS EST GOUVERNE PAR LES LIVRES. (Accurate. See “L’Amour de l’etude” by J.N.M Deguerle, in his Oeuvres.)

  • ANIMI PABULUM. ANIMI MEDICINA. (I can’t locate this.)


What does all this mean? First, while Leighton seems to have collected proverbs, he did not seem to make them up himself. That means that this is probably a quote. Second, he didn’t have any compunction against using the original language, so the quote may not be a translation. Third, he would paraphrase when needed, so the wording of the original may not be exactly as he wrote it.

Most of all, this demonstrates the value of Google Book Search. This research would not have been possible, even in spite of their sometimes funky OCR.

The hunt continues!

Peter Could these be rare ‘recordings’ of a oral tradition that might have been widespread but largely unwritten?

John: the irony in the phrase ‘exact no confessions’, in particular, made me too think of the early eighteenth century. However, I think the quotation could be later, perhaps quite a lot later.

Peter: I am intrigued by what you have found.

‘Animi medicina’ is Cicero. ‘Est profecto animi medicina, philosophia’ (Philosophy is certainly a medicine for the soul) [Tusculan Disputations, III.6].

St Jerome has ‘Animae pabulum’, ‘food of the soul’, in one of his epistles:

interpretationem quoque psalmorum Daviticorum et prolixum valde de synodis librum sancti Hilarii … aeque ut mihi transferas peto. nosti hoc esse Christianae animae pabulum, si in lege domini meditetur die ac nocte.’ (I beg you also to kindly send me the commentary on the Psalms of David and the extremely prolix book by St Hilary on Synods … You know that this [kind of reading matter] is the food of the Christian soul, if it is to meditate on the law of the Lord day and night.) [Letter V: to Florentinus, 2.3]

I am grateful to the excellent Latin Library website for the resources that helped me locate these quotations.

Whilst there are few original ideas there are original expressions Gillian could -exact no confessions- refer to some scandal at court circa Popes time?

The ‘dog tag”, for some reason, comes to mind

I am his majesty’s dog at Kew ,

Pray tell me sir, who’s dog are you?

If really researching this, my impulse would be to get some of the anthologies of proverbs, quotations, etc., published from the 18th into the early 20th centuries. Including ones for English readers explaining quotes in other languages. Authors who sprinkled unattributed quotes into their works probably expected contemporary readers to have such an anthology on hand and look up whatever was not familiar.

If the agenda here is whether Google ngrams or online works are useful, my answer is certainly: As long as they are clearly in the public domain or legitimately and voluntarily licensed from the copyright holders. I do not think “public benefit” should be used as a shield for defending illegal acts, and that goes for the whole Google scanning project and everything related to it.

Whilst there are few original ideas —there are original expressions Gillian could -exact no confessions- refer to some scandal at court circa Popes time?

The ‘dog tag”, for some reason, comes to mind

I am his majesty’s dog at Kew ,

Pray tell me sir, who’s dog are you?

Peter, This thread (and its use of Google search) sort of reminds of Bacon’s “modern paradox” and Swifts personification of it in the dispute between the Honey Bee and the Spider.

sorry some thing weird happened on reload??

Not here, Frances. This is not a thread about the settlement.

Gillian, thanks for the references to Cicero and St. Jerome’s epistles. What is curious is by whom and when these two phrases were put together. Illinois has a copy of the “Moral Emblems” book that has the phrase stamped on the front and back cover, which suggests it might have been in common use, but I have not found other instances of it.

Could Leighton have been recording an oral proverbial tradition? I suppose so, but the fact that most of his quotes come from written sources suggests to me that he is relying on a literate tradition.

I continue to be engaged by the thought that books “exact no confessions.” What would? I suppose that if you were in a dialog with a friend, one might reveal more - and run the risk of having the information subsequently passed on to others - than occurs when one’s “dialogue” is with a book. Is this an early expression of Julie Cohen’s “right to read anonymously”?

And speaking of ngrams, I assume everyone has discovered that if you run the phrase “books are kind friends,” you get no results - even though James has proven that the phrase reoccurred in the 19th century. While I think Dan Cohen is right to praise the Ngram database, we are far from the “sweetness and light” that we might wish for.

Most of all, I continue to be impressed by the knowledge and wide-ranging interests of the sponsor of this blog.

I think “exact no confessions” means that if you asked someone for personal advice on an embarrassing or confidential subject, that person would also likely ask why you needed this information. Before the 20th century relatives and even friends were not only free with moral advice, they considered it their duty to dispense it.

And I continue to be impressed by the erudition and insight of my commenters. You make this blog entertaining and enlightening for me. Happy New Year to all.

I have been pondering John’s query about an oral tradition. Proverbs, of course, are part of oral tradition, but these quotations (and pseudo-quotations) are not proverbs, precisely. I think rather they belong to a mainly ephemeral written tradition: written in places like library walls, now long painted over, and in short filler items in nineteenth-century periodical literature (of which there was a great deal). It is quite possible that James’s original quotation may be the product of much the same kind of mangling as the quotation by Mary Wortley Montague that Peter traced.

If you ask a friend for information or advice, they are more or less bound to want to know the full circumstances: that, it seems to me, is the point of ‘books … exact no confessions’.

I see I am “a day behind the fair”, to use a late Georgian expression. I began my comment earlier today, before Frances had posted her own comment on “exact no confessions”; I was called away before I posted it, and clicked the button just now rather too hastily, without checking back on the discussion.

Gillian Perhaps there was a book, a book with some sort of margin annotations (about somebody) that was accidentally lent to the wrong person?

in my profession most of the really important stuff was passed on in the pub after class. That’s what ‘school of’ really meant.

James I can only second Peters remarks , and I thank you for putting up with Me.