Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The House of Twenty Thousand Books by Sasha Abramsky (New York Review Books 2015)

What Chimen did do, though, was pen a series of memoranda about how he had acquired some of his rarest prizes. He wrote, for example, about how, in the early 1950s, he had managed to buy William Morris’s complete collection of the Socialist League’s journal, The Commonweal, along with the wooden box, with a rexine cover dyed blue and lined with a white felt like material, that Morris himself had constructed to house a 1539 Bible, and in which, ultimately, he kept his copies of the revolutionary paper. The pages of the publication—its words printed in double columns originally on a monthly basis, then later weekly, from 1886 until 1895, and filled with the revolutionary musings of Morris, Marx’s daughter Eleanor, and other radical luminaries of the late-Victorian years—had passed from Morris to his close friend, the typographer Emery Walker; from Walker to his daughter and from her to a poet named Norman Hidson. Chimen eventually bought it from Hidden for £50. And there they stayed, in their Bible box, high on a wooden shelf in the upstairs hallway at 5 Hillway, for more than half a century.

Those pages were some of Chimen’s most treasured possessions, their crinkly texture and age-browned color conjuring images of the cultured, tea-drinking revolutionaries who had made up Morris’s coterie. I imagine that, in many ways, Chimen saw himself in their stories. The front-page manifesto in The Commonweal’s first issue, sold to readers for one penny in February 1886 and signed by the twenty-three founders of the Socialist League, put the mission simply: “We come before you as a body advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of Society—a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities.” On May Day the following year, the date on which it was announced that the paper would be published weekly, Morris and his friend Ernest Belfort Bax wrote an editorial: “We are but few, as all those who stand by principles must be until inevitable necessity forces the world to practise those principles. We are few, and have our own work to do, which no one but ourselves can do, and every atom of intelligence and energy that there is amongst us will be needed for that work."

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