Our book today is George Hamilton Fitch's 1911 volume Comfort Found in Good Old Books, a collection of the author's most popular book columns from the old San Francisco Chronicle. It's a collection the author never thought he'd make in quite the way he made it, but books are often like that. Fitch was a minor institution at the Chronicle and well-respected as a thorough-going example of what used to be called a “book man.” His columns regularly drew appreciative letters from readers, and publishers regularly sent him boxes of new releases and catalogs of forthcoming titles, in the hopes he'd choose to review them. And he often did (under his own name and pseudonyms, a curiously persistent practice in certain circles of literary journalism), but always striking the typical Edwardian note of worry that the modern world of streetcars and dry-cleaning was crowding out the eternal verities.
Even in that less skeptical age, his readers could be forgiven for wondering how much of this, after decades of repetition, was just empty cant. Possibly Fitch himself wondered. Then in 1910 his young son Harold suddenly died, and as Fitch wrote (in an eerie, heartbreaking echo of Theodore Roosevelt), his “death has taken the light out of my life.” No father and son could have been closer – best friends, near-constant companions, like minds, companions in adventure – and no loss more devastating.
True to form (a blogger at heart, long before their like was conceived), Fitch wrote about this tragedy soon after it happened, and he wrote about something else, too: it turned out that once the white-hot chaos of immediate loss had uncramped him, he actually did turn to those eternal verities for consolation. He turned to books, and not just any books but some of the greatest classics of the canon, the very works he'd always told people would be their most reliable comforters in times of trouble. He turned to them with his heart broken into a thousand pieces – and they did indeed comfort him. His note of surprise is audible – and understandable; it always surprises you, the first time it happens.
He'd thought his loss irreparable:
Now that this perennial spirit of youth is gone out of my life, the beauty of it stands revealed more clearly. Gone forever are the dear, the fond-remembered holidays, when the long summer days were far too short for the pleasure that we crowded into them. Gone are the winter walks in the teeth of the blustering ocean breezes, when we “took the wind into our pulses” and strode like Berserkers along the gray sand dunes, tasting the rarest spirit of life in the open air. Gone, clean gone, those happy days, leaving only the precious memory that wets my eyes that are not used to tears.
But only weeks later, he was able to report to his readers that the gospel was true in all its particulars: not only will reading the best books make you a better person, it will gift you with friends who are always there, always supportive, always themselves.
Naturally, readers wrote in by the hundreds. They offered their own stories, their condolences, and most of all, they asked Fitch to talk about which books had saved him. There sprang from those letters (and, one imagines, a deep sense of gratitude) a series of brief glimpses of some of those redemptive classics – glimpses Fitch then collected into a book that sold in huge numbers on both coasts for the better part of two years.
It wasn't just the origin story that was irresistible to readers. Through long practice and a wonderful open mind, Fitch had always been a book-reviewer well worth reading. He combined a strong set of guiding beliefs (he was a devout Christian) with a wide knowledge of his subjects, and he was also careful to present that history in a way his readers would find both enlightening and entertaining. In fifteen short chapters, he turns to a small handful of enduring classics – the Bible, Shakespeare, the Arabian Nights, St. Augustine, Don Quixote, Boswell's life of Johnson, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Milton, etc. - and first tells his readers something about them, then offers his thoughts, as here about Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress:
The miracle of this book is that it should have been written by a man who had little education and small knowledge of the great world, yet that it should be a literary masterpiece in the simple perfection of its form, and that it should be so filled with wisdom that the wisest man may gain something from its pages. Literary genius has never been shown in greater measure than in this immortal allegory by the poor tinker of Bedforshire.
Or here, on Dante:
In all literature nothing can be found to surpass the influence of this poem of Dante's, struck off at white heat at the end of a life filled with the bitterness of worldly defeats and losses, but glorified by these visions of a spiritual conquest, greater than any of the victories of this world.
Readers back then (as now) very much valued this tone of adoring certainty, and even in his grief Fitch could no more lose that tone than he could float in mid-air. Readers also valued Fitch's ever-present practical suggestions as to formats and editions, and he can't resist making those suggestions even in the middle of his mourning:
Many editions of The Imitation of Christ have been issued, but for one who wish to make it a pocket companion, non is better than the little editions in The Macmillan Company's Pocket Classics, edited by Brother Leo, professor of English literature in St. Mary's College, Oakland. This accomplished critic has written an excellent introduction to the book, in which he sketches the life of the old monk, the sources of his work and the curious controversy over its authorship which raged for many years. Buy this inexpensive edition and study it, and then, if you come to love old Thomas, get an edition that is worthy of his sterling merit.
Fitch always believed that cultivating the habit of reading was one of the cheapest and most incredibly worthwhile things a person could do for themselves. He was right, of course. But his other oft-proclaimed belief – that books could literally save you when pain threatened to blot you out – is something he only really learned through awful need. Maybe that's the only way to learn it; it's certainly the way I did. And time and time again since then, it's proven true. When I lost the best friend I'd ever have or am ever likely to have, a week later I first began to feel returned to the world by reading the endless prattle of a dear old companion, a diary entry about how he went to St. Paul's churchyard to inquire about how his book-binding was coming along, how his Chaucer was progressing but wasn't really neat enough for his liking, how he gave a few pointers to help out, how he had to remember to go to the clasp-makers and have clasps and embosses ordered to match the set …
It was the first time I'd smiled in a week.
The best, least foreseeable detail as far as Fitch is concerned is that his own advice has grown to enclose him: I turn to his book often, when I need my rudder righted a little.