Monday, August 10, 2009

Napoleon's Books

I started this blog three years ago with a post about Napoleon and his disregard for a certain bookseller, Johann Palm, whom he had executed. Now I have learned of his disregard for certain books beyond the seditious pamphlet for which Mr. Palm lost his life.

The photo to the left is of Napoleon's library. Looks like Napoleon cared about his books and preserved them in fine fashion. But he didn't care about all his books. Those tomes that did not meet with his approval were tossed into the fire. If he was traveling and had been given books to read, those he did not like were simply tossed out the window of his carriage.

I discovered this bit of information in a little book compiled by Christopher Morley: Ex Libris, published in November of 1936 for the First National Book Fair, sponsored by the New York Times and the National Association of Book Publishers.

In Morley's introduction, titled This Little Scrapbook, he states,
"I have purposely avoided the famous golden texts and purple passages of the bibliophile's evangel. You will not find Emily Dickinson's There is no frigate like a book, nor Wordsworth's Books are a substantial world, etc.; not even the well-loved but now too familiar rubrics from Lamb, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Stevenson, Gissing and the others. Most of the fragments here are contemporary, and it was the editor's pleasure to choose not only literary bits but also odds and ends of trade and technical palaver."
To that end, there is the odd habit of Napoleon reported in fragment number 7, which the Index attributes to James Westfall Thompson in Byways in Bookland:
In the hour after dinner, unless that had been a state affair, Napoleon used to glance over new books, throwing those which did not interest him upon the floor or into the fire. When on the road, it was the emperor's usual practice to pitch ephemeral literature, and books which did not please him, out of the windows of his carriage. This explains why not infrequently books bearing his arms are to be found advertised in sale catalogues of London and Paris booksellers.
Luc Sante, in a Wall Street Journal article last year commented on private libraries while writing about his own. Referring to Napoleon's traveling library, he supports what Thompson's anecdote alludes to--that Napoleon was a voracious reader. Sante writes that Napoleon traveled with a field library of some 40 volumes of religious texts, another 40 of epics, 60 of poetry, 100 novels, 60 histories and some historical memoirs. That's a regular Parnassus on Wheels, which brings us back to Christopher Morley. His inclusion in Ex Libris of Thompson's anecdote about Napoleon's flinging books into fires and the countryside is taken from Thompson's essay about the books Napoleon possessed and read. As stated earlier, this and other of Thompson's essays were collected in a volume titled Byways in Bookland, a copy of which is now on its way to my library. I look forward to reading more about what Napoleon read. In the meantime, I'll be reading more of what Christopher Morley compiled in Ex Libris and will post here about the more interesting fragments, as he calls them.

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