Conan_doyleOver the last few days, I’ve done something I’ve always meant to get around to but hadn’t yet: worked my way through the entire canon of Sherlock Holmes stories via their posting on Google Books. (Except for the last story collection, of course, which is not yet in the public domain in the US.)

After that, I happened onto an interesting Conan Doyle work called Through the Magic Door, in which the author looks at his own bookshelf and discusses each of the works that are dear to his own heart. The first few paragraphs of the book especially resonate for me, and seem more than mildly prophetic in some ways.

Here, just let the magic of Conan Doyle’s words wash over you:

I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland. Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Each is a mummified soul embalmed in cere-cloth and natron of leather and printer’s ink. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command.

It is our familiarity also which has lessened our perception of the miraculous good fortune which we enjoy. Let us suppose that we were suddenly to learn that Shakespeare had returned to earth, and that he would favour any of us with an hour of his wit and his fancy. How eagerly we would seek him out! And yet we have him—the very best of him—at our elbows from week to week, and hardly trouble ourselves to put out our hands to beckon him down. No matter what mood a man may be in, when once he has passed through the magic door he can summon the world’s greatest to sympathize with him in it. If he be thoughtful, here are the kings of thought. If he be dreamy, here are the masters of fancy. Or is it amusement that he lacks? He can signal to any one of the world’s great story-tellers, and out comes the dead man and holds him enthralled by the hour. The dead are such good company that one may come to think too little of the living. It is a real and a pressing danger with many of us, that we should never find our own thoughts and our own souls, but be ever obsessed by the dead. Yet second-hand romance and second-hand emotion are surely better than the dull, soul-killing monotony which life brings to most of the human race. But best of all when the dead man’s wisdom and strength in the living of our own strenuous days.

Come through the magic door with me, and sit here on the green settee, where you can see the old oak case with its untidy lines of volumes. Smoking is not forbidden. Would you care to hear me talk of them? Well, I ask nothing better, for there is no volume there which is not a dear, personal friend, and what can a man talk of more pleasantly than that? The other books are over yonder, but these are my own favourites—the ones I care to re-read and to have near my elbow. There is not a tattered cover which does not bring its mellow memories to me.

Some of them represent those little sacrifices which make a possession dearer. You see the line of old, brown volumes at the bottom? Every one of those represents a lunch. They were bought in my student days, when times were not too affluent. Threepence was my modest allowance for my midday sandwich and glass of beer; but, as luck would have it, my way to the classes led past the most fascinating bookshop in the world. Outside the door of it stood a large tub filled with an ever-changing litter of tattered books, with a card above which announced that any volume therein could be purchased for the identical sum which I carried in my pocket. As I approached it a combat ever raged betwixt the hunger of a youthful body and that of an inquiring and omnivorous mind. Five times out of six the animal won. But when the mental prevailed, then there was an entrancing five minutes’ digging among out-of-date almanacs, volumes of Scotch theology, and tables of logarithms, until one found something which made it all worth while. If you will look over these titles, you will see that I did not do so very badly. Four volumes of Gordon’s "Tacitus" (life is too short to read originals, so long as there are good translations), Sir William Temple’s Essays, Addison’s works, Swift’s "Tale of a Tub," Clarendon’s "History," "Gil Blas," Buckingham’s Poems, Churchill’s Poems, "Life of Bacon"—not so bad for the old threepenny tub.

They were not always in such plebeian company. Look at the thickness of the rich leather, and the richness of the dim gold lettering. Once they adorned the shelves of some noble library, and even among the odd almanacs and the sermons they bore the traces of their former greatness, like the faded silk dress of the reduced gentlewoman, a present pathos but a glory of the past.

Reading is made too easy nowadays, with cheap paper editions and free libraries. A man does not appreciate at its full worth the thing that comes to him without effort. Who now ever gets the thrill which Carlyle felt when he hurried home with the six volumes of Gibbon’s "History" under his arm, his mind just starving for want of food, to devour them at the rate of one a day? A book should be your very own before you can really get the taste of it, and unless you have worked for it, you will never have the true inward pride of possession.

Look at that last paragraph. “Reading is made too easy nowadays…” What would Conan Doyle think if he were alive today? In his time, people at least had to bestir their lazy rumps from their sofas and trot down to the library if they wanted to read. Now we have Project Gutenberg and Google Books and dozens of other free e-book sites, legal or not. Yet it seems that reading is at an all-time low.

And even those of us who do read don’t read like Conan Doyle did. I’ve gotten about a third of the way through the book, and have never read a single one of the books he describes. (Well, I take that back. I have read Ivanhoe, a long time ago.) It’s a credit to Conan Doyle that he makes them sound interesting enough that I almost want to, but it was hard enough to find the desire to read his books. And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gotten around even to reading Holmes if it hadn’t been that my workplace’s whitelist now blocks out any e-book site except Google Books.

If you read any literature from those days, it seems as though the educated men of the era were much better educated than educated men of today. The classics were something that you read as part of your education, or even read for fun and your own edification. Perhaps it was that they didn’t have as much else they could be doing as we do today, as many distractions as movies and TV and computer games and the web as we have.

But then again, it could be that the dichotomy has always been with us. Even as Conan Doyle complained people weren’t reading any more because it was too easy, the educated classes despaired of the popular tripe that less educated people were reading. I’ve mentioned Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, in which booksellers at the turn of the 20th century despaired of the Nick Carter and Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that were so much in demand. One department store bookseller laments of a colleague in the furniture department who occasionally uses books as decorations on storefront window displays:

Last summer he asked me for "something by that Ring fellow, I forget the name," to put a punchy finish on a layout of porch furniture. I thought perhaps he meant Wagner’s Nibelungen operas, and began to dig them out. Then I found he meant Ring Lardner.

Perhaps we can’t really know to what extent people back then were reading more of the classics without actually being there. It could just be a case of the proverbial grass being greener. All I can say is, it seems as if Conan Doyle’s opinions about the ease of reading leading to its decline are just about dead on. You really only appreciate things you’ve had to work and sacrifice for, not things that are handed to you on a silver platter.

(I suppose that’s partly why publishers felt they had to implement agency pricing. While I still can’t say I agree with the decision, it does become more understandable when viewed in that light.)

Looking at the download numbers for some of these books tells a pretty sad story. The Project Gutenberg edition of Through the Magic Door has only had 126 downloads. Parnassus on Wheels has 61. The Haunted Bookshop has 126. (And how many of those were web bots on search crawls?)

Apart from the genre classics like Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Jonathan Swift, and so on, how many of us are in the habit of sitting down for an hour of entertainment in books that are over a hundred years old? (There are probably a lot more of those in this blog’s readership than in general, but I’m speaking rhetorically.) What Conan Doyle says is even more true now than it was in his day: we have the accumulated wisdom of the ages literally at our fingertips, and yet we rarely ever bother to reach for it.


  1. Sir Doyle, one of my favorite authors. It is almost too easy for a modern person to compare their lives to his and find it lacking in finesse, education and the insatiable desire to read. I had the privilege to read and review one of the latest biographies, which included numerous letters and an in depth look at his childhood. IN reading about the man himself I felt a kind of link of understanding form between us; his childhood was so unhappy and as he grew older his consuming loneliness helped him take refuge in books and eventually in writing. Therein lies the secret to voracious reading; there was no television true, nor Internet BUT with a lack of human society–for whatever reason–Doyle turned to prose with his whole being, to consume, to enjoy and finally to create. Being as well-read as he was I am not surprised at the quality of his work. Even as a book review I cannot match the number of titles he went through.

    Doyle’s words, as quoted in the piece above, do allow us see yet another thread linking Then and Now: folks then regarded favorite books as close friends, and many still do.

  2. Thank you, I enjoyed reading this post. I have some connection to it, because I helped prepare the text of “Through the Magic Door” for Gutenberg back in 2002.

    Also, it might help to note that the download figures given on the PG website are for the last 30 days only. No records are kept any older than that. (I know that the website is lacking in that it does not really make that clear.)

  3. Christopher Morley can not only be read, but heard, on some editions of the radio show Information Please which are available from many sources (come to that I think there are one or two old recordings of Doyle himself still around). I discovered Morley through Gutenberg and enjoyed him immensely. Other great free reads from that period:

    Where There’s A Will — Mary Roberts Rinehart
    A Houseboat on the Styx — John Kendrick Bangs
    Three Men on the Bummel — Jerome K Jerome
    Innocents Abroad — Mark Twain

    and an ever-increasing collection of detective fiction — Austin Freeman, Edgar Wallace, Arthur Machen, Rinehart again, Carolyn Wells, and even some early Agatha Christie.

    You think reading about dragons, smart computers or high-tech weaponry is escapism? Try reading about life in 1920s Paris!

    This is the great advantage of living in the 21st century: you can step back in time and get off almost anywhere you want to.

  4. What a wonderful piece! No idea Doyle wrote it. I’m passing it on to my fellow bibliophiles. Though my tastes are entirely different, I feel the same way about my own library.

    Though Chris’s points are valid and cogent, I disagree that our not reading the classics of Conan Doyle’s time is necessarily a negative. Tastes change. Definitions of “classics” change. (Indeed, ERB is now, rightfully so, considered a master of his genre.) Look at the number of readers of the fiction published just in the last decade or two. Who cares if it’s not as stuffy as the ancients? People are still reading and enjoying books and that’s what counts.

    It’s the same with the arts. When this was published in 1907, the public knew little or nothing of Picasso, Dali, N. C. Wyeth, Rockwell, Lindsay, Disney, Barks, Foster or Raymond…Giants like Elvgren, Frazetta, Kirby, Wrightson, Schulz and Watterson hadn’t even been born–now much of their work is considered “classic.” The classics change; yes, many of the old ones remain, but new ones are added by history.

    As long as we promote the love and rewards of reading, the classics will continue. Doyle’s positive comments still ring true. Thanks again for the reminder!

  5. Whoa! The Haunted Bookshop is on Google? I’ve been wanting to read that, but even most public libraries don’t have a copy any more. Thanks for that!! I never think to check Google. As for this excerpt from Sir Arthur, I feel as he does about my books, each one an old friend, some from days I went to Crown Books on my lunch hour and hurriedly picked a paperback to read with my brown bag lunch, Still have them, and they follow me wherever I go.

  6. This is a marvelous article, one of the best I’ve read in many a month.

    It calls to mind something I once read, although I forget the source. During the Cold War, one of the leading Soviet dissidents credited his ability to break free of thought control to something that happened when he was a young boy.

    He was playing in the hayloft of an old barn when by accident, he slipped between the two walls that provided the barn with insulation through the cold Russian winters. There he found books someone hid when the czar fell and communist censorship began. It was through them that he learned to think as a free man. It was through them that he passed ‘through the magic door.’

  7. I remember the amazement I felt when downloading John Kendrick Bangs’ A Rebellious Heroine ( a classic metafictional romp) and seeing that only 9 people had downloaded it from PG. A Haunted Bookshelf is also on Project Gutenberg, although unfortunately Christopher Morley’s main works appeared between 1923-1940, which means they are all locked up by the Mickey Mouse Copyright act.

    I can write volumes of financial sacrifices I made to buy certain books. To tell the truth, I don’t think I have regretted a single book purchase I have ever made (except for maybe some horrible college textbooks).

  8. Take heart! “Through the Magic Door” has been downloaded from feedbooks 10,583 times (so far) . Maybe not a great consolation to those whose offices have blocked the site (heresy!!!) but still comforting to know, I think.

    As others have alluded, each generation laments the degeneration of its age compared to previous generations. I don’t believe reading is dying today any more than it was dying in Conan Doyle’s time, although as others have suggested it may be changing. I relish the books I discover and love whether they are classics Doyle might have enjoyed, classics that he may never have read (The Great Gatsby: 105,267 downloads so far! And it only fell into the public domain this year. ), or frivolous pulp detective stories. And yes, I also have my cherished circle of friends I would never part with, although I am more and more happy to replace their paper carcasses with digital avatars.

    Thank you for the excerpt. Although I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes books many times starting when I was a child, I’ve never read that book. I think I’ll download it from feedbooks and dive in.

  9. As I think I’ve said before, having access to the classics and public domain books via Project Gutenberg makes me feel like Daffy Duck in Aladdin’s Cave: “I’m rich! I’m RICH! I’m FABULOUSLY wealthy!”

    Daffy chortles madly and rolls ecstatically in his discovered wealth. So do I. 😉

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