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Books In The Great West
by [?]

Since taking to writing as a profession I have lost most of the interest I had in literature as literature pure and simple. That interest gradually faded and “Art for Art’s sake,” in the sense the simple in studios are wont to dilate upon, touches me no more, or very, very rarely. The books I love now are those which teach me something actual about the living world; and it troubles me not at all if any of them betray no sense of beauty and lack immortal words. Their artistry is nothing, what they say is everything. So on the shelf to which I mostly resort is a book on the Himalayas; a Lloyd’s Shipping Register; a little work on seamanship that every would-be second mate knows; Brown’s Nautical Almanacs; a Channel Pilot; a Continental Bradshaw; many Baedekers; a Directory to the Indian Ocean and the China Seas; a big folding map of the United States; some books dealing with strategy, and some touching on medical knowledge, but principally pathology, and especially the pathology of the mind.

Yet in spite of this utilitarian bent of my thoughts there are very many books I know and love and sometimes look into because of their associations. As I cannot understand (through some mental kink which my friends are wont to jeer at) how anyone can return again and again to a book for its own sake, I do not read what I know. As soon would I go back when it is my purpose to go forward. A book should serve its turn, do its work, and become a memory. To love books for their own sake is to be crystallised before old age comes on. Only the old are entitled to love the past. The work of the young lies in the present and the future.

But still, in spite of my theories, I like to handle, if not to read, certain books which were read by me under curious and perhaps abnormal circumstances. If I do not open them it is due to a certain bashfulness, a subtle dislike of seeing myself as I was. Yet the books I read while tramping in America, such as Sartor Resartus, have the same attraction for me that a man may feel for a place. I carried the lucubrations of Teufelsdrockh with me as I wandered; I read them as I camped in the open upon the prairie; I slipped them into my pocket when I went shepherding in the Texan plateau south of the Panhandle.

Another book which went with me on my tramps through Minnesota and Iowa was a tiny volume of Emerson’s essays. This I loved less than I loved Carlyle, and I gave it to a railroad “section boss” in the north-west of Iowa because he was kind to me. When Sartor Resartus had travelled with me through the Kicking Horse Pass and over the Selkirks into British Columbia, and was sucked dry, I gave it at last to a farming Englishman who lived not far from Kamloops. I remember that in the flyleaf I kept a rough diary of the terrible week I spent in climbing through the Selkirk Range with sore and wounded feet. It is perhaps little wonder that I associate Teufelsdrockh, the mind-wanderer, with those days of my own life. And yet, unless I live to be old, I shall never read the book again.

The tramp, or traveller, or beach-comber, or general scallywag finds little time and little chance to read. And for the most part we must own he cares little for literature in any form. But I was not always wandering. I varied wandering with work, and while working at a sawmill on the coast, or close to it, in the lower Fraser River in British Columbia, I read much. In the town of New Westminster was a little public library, and I used to go thither after work if I was not too tired. But the work in a sawmill is very arduous to everyone in it, and while the winter kept away I had little energy to read. Presently, however, the season changed, and the bitter east winds came out of the mountains and fixed the river in ice and froze up our logs in the “boom,” so that the saws were at last silent, and I was free to plunge among the books and roll and soak among them day and night.