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Reading between the lines

‘Voltaire and the Sun King rolled into one’ is how Elizabeth Longford has described her Oxford tutor Maurice Bowra.

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

Hitler’s Private Library Timothy W. Ryback

The Bodley Head, pp.278, 18.99

Oscar’s Books Thomas Wright

Chatto, pp.370, 16.99

‘Voltaire and the Sun King rolled into one’ is how Elizabeth Longford has described her Oxford tutor Maurice Bowra.

If the promoters of the e-book have their way, personal libraries of the future will consist of intricate cyber-memories holding thousands of volumes conjured up at the touch of a finger, while the reader, bounded in an electronic nutshell, will count himself a king of infinite space. Gone will be the pleasures of sitting in a book-lined room watched by the ghosts of the garrulous dead, gone the unique feeling of companionship and awe that the accumulation of books over a lifetime can inspire. Gone too the harmless and prurient delight of peering through someone else’s shelves in order to catch a glimpse of his secrets and foibles. Fortunately, I believe, such a future is yet but a glint in the technology-mongers’ eye and, however strong the competition, I trust that our homes will house books for however long we continue to claim the tag of homo sapiens.

There’s still hope then, I’m certain, for those among us who believe that a good way of knowing someone is by snooping through his shelves. If the things we eat and the company we keep betray, we are told, who we are, how much more so the books we read or don’t read. Few relationships are as intimate as that of a reader with his books; therefore, how refreshing to know, for example, that the prim children’s author, Constancio C. Vigil, kept an excellent collection of pornographic literature in his study. How surprising that the undeservedly forgotten George Moore banned encyclopedias from his library. How interesting that Ernest Hemingway owned a complete set of A la recherche du temps perdu in his Key West bungalow.


Two new books investigate this fascinating branch of the art of biography: one explores some of the books that Hitler read and annotated; the other, the books that Oscar Wilde held dear. Not surprisingly, no book by Oscar Wilde appeared on Hitler’s shelves; and, for the sake of avoiding conventional anachronism, the reverse is also true.

Hitler, we are told, was a voracious reader, devouring at least one book, often several, a night. Curious as to whether a reader, however infamous, might be illuminated by the books he kept, Timothy W. Ryback, co-director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, has spent the past six years hunting down what is left of the 16,000 volumes Hitler collected in his several private libraries in Berlin, Munich and Obersalzberg. The earliest efforts to catalogue Hitler’s library date from immediately after the war; the most ambitious, from 2001, when two scholars annotated over 1200 of Hitler’s books preserved in the United States, most of them in the Library of Congress. Following these efforts, Ryback wisely chooses only a handful of books to investigate: ‘those surviving volumes that possessed either emotional or intellectual significance for Hitler’: a travel guide to Berlin that the 26-year-old purchased for four marks in November 1915, while serving as a corporal on the Western front; a German adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt; Fichte’s Collected Works dedicated to Hitler by the photographer and film- maker Leni Riefenstahl; Henry Ford’s despicable The International Jew translated into German; a couple of books on alchemy and the occult. By means of this heterogeneous medley Ryback has been able to draw a portrait of Hitler the reader, meticulous, critical and compulsive. How does this help us understand the man responsible for incalculable suffering and loss? Only to the degree that it prevents us from exculpating him as a mere monster, as someone alien to our human condition. The fact that Hitler read, and read extensively, somehow renders the man even more abominable.

Hitler ranked Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gulliver’s Travels among literature’s greatest works. He knew some Shakespeare by heart, and also the Bible. This piece of information produces, in this reader at least, a disagreeable sensation of unease, as if the revelation somehow soiled books that I too hold dear, something similar to the revulsion experienced by the owner of a book that once belonged to Hitler and who, after a while, felt so deeply uncomfortable keeping it in her house that she decided to give it away to an institution. If books affect and change us, we too change and affect our books, and not always for the better.

Oscar Wilde’s relationship with his books was (though the comparison is absurd) both more scholarly and more physical. For someone who had said that ‘in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing,’ it is comforting to see how intensely and deeply he read the classics. Thomas Wright, whose lovingly researched Oscar’s Books looks into all aspects of Wilde’s bookish passions, stresses Wilde’s proficiency in ancient Greek, proven, better perhaps than by his double first at Oxford, by copious and learned annotations in his copies of Homer, Plato, Euripides and many others. But the external beauty of books, too, mattered greatly to Wilde: though he considered books practical objects and would sometimes cut pages out of them for his own use, he delighted in elaborate bindings, exquisite first editions and cream paper with wide margins. Wilde’s bibliophilia (like his other passions) was tempered by intelligent humour. Wright reminds us that Wilde once declared his intention of bringing out a limited edition of his poem ‘The Sphinx’ in a print-run of just three copies: ‘One for myself, one for the British Museum, and one for Heaven. I have some doubts,’ he added, ‘about the British Museum.’

Shortly after Wilde’s arrest, while he sat in Holloway prison awaiting trial, the entire contents of his house in Chelsea was sold at the demands of his creditors. During the sale, Wright tells us, the front door of the house was left open and people rushed in to loot it. Wilde’s friends attempted to stop the outrage and the police had to be called in. Some 2,000 precious volumes, plus countless magazines, photographs and manuscripts, went for about £130. In this case, the fate of Wilde’s books tells us more about the society that condemned him than about the reader who collected and cherished them.

There is however a happy post- scriptum to this sad affair. In December 2006, Wright was awarded a £5,000 prize by the Royal Society of Literature, a sum which would help him pay the ‘extortionate rent’ of his London flat, when he heard that, the next week, Sotheby’s was going to auction Wilde’s copy of Swinburne’s Essays and Studies. And even though he knew that books owned by Wilde were selling at five times that amount, Wright decided to bid for it. He got the book, with the words ‘Oscar Wilde Magdalen College July 1877’ inscribed on the initial blank page in Wilde’s ‘beautiful charactery’ and two of Wilde’s doodles imprinted on end-pages. Wilde would have no doubt approved.


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