In this classic essay, Vernon Lee shows us how life and discovery are phenomena that occur while we are busy running after trains. Lee (1856-1935), a member of the Aesthetic Movement, lived long before our current digital age of high tech toys, but she nevertheless already realized its implications. As she wrote in one of her essays:
There is an unlucky tendency … to allow every new invention to add to life’s complications, and every new power to increase life’s hustling; so that, unless we can dominate the mischief, we are really the worse off instead of the better.
The author of some forty-five volumes of travel literature, art history, and supernatural stories, Vernon Lee (1856-1935) knew all about not just reading, but also writing books. Born to Anglo-French parents in France under the name Violet Piaget, she adopted a male pseudonym for her English-language publications in Frazer’s Magazine and other journals. In this brief essay she captures the intrinsic appeal of bound and printed books. Does she come across a little bit elitist in this text from 1903? Like they say up in Alaska: You betcha! I assume the modern-day descendants of those Italian contadini she so casually disses draw profound satisfaction from thumbing through their own dog-eared copies of The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey, sounding out the words. But a glance at Lee’s resumé shows that she had every reason to toot her own aesthetic horn.
Now if we can take Wiki’s word for it, her personal library can still be visited in the offices of the British Institute in Florence. I don’t know about you, but the next time I’m in those parts I’d love to run my fingers along the backs of her private collection. I’ll bet it’s a beauty…