Sunday, November 29, 2009

The World As It Is (was in 1836 anyway)

I own a lot of books. I mean thousands and thousands. I was given a few when I was a child and a few more since then but most of them I bought myself and they have tended to accumulate. Once in a while I have gotten rid of a few of them. Sometimes I have regretted doing so and Ihave never gotten rid of enough to make a big difference.
Probably the oldest book I own is called "The World As It Is: Containing a view of the present condition of its principal nations." It was written by Samuel Perkins and published, in its second edition, by Thomas Bellknap in 1836.
I bought the book almost fourty years ago in Belleville, Ontario when the Quinte Bookshop was closing down. It cost me a quarter. The owner of the store, Joy Nicholls, told me, I think, that it had belonged to her father. She was a little reluctant to see it go but she sold it to me.
She had run the bookshop on Bridge Street for a long time but she had decided it was time to retire. It was not a big place and the selection was not extensive. The service was personal and old fashioned. I remember her starting a special order for me which involved a handwritten letter. One of her big markets had been Grade 13 textboks back in the days when students had to buy their own books for that last year of high school. It goes without saying that I would never have addressed her as Joy, only as Miss Nicholls.
The book is in reasonable condition with more than four hundred pages of small print and engravings. Many of its pages are only slightly discoloured thanks to its publication before the invention of paper made from wood fibres which needed to be processed with acid.
The book is American in origin and viewpoint. It is patriotic and full of enthusiasm for the United States and the ideals under which it was founded:  "Every citizen enjoys equal privileges. His life, liberty and property are alike under the protection of the law. No person, however high his station, can trespass upon the rights of the humblest, without subjecting himself to make ample satisfaction."
Naturally, the word citizen in the quote means "white citizens"; the book notes that the inhabitants of the United States are of four classes: white citizens, free persons of color, slaves and Indians. Much of the language in the book reflects a fundamentally racist view but the author wrote honestly about the problems of "free blacks". For example, he mentions that people desired to set up colleges to provide a liberal education to free blacks and noted that no community "has been found willing to have such an institution in its neighbourhood".
The almanac has a lot of the kinds of details that endear a book of this nature to those who enjoy them. Much about the consititions of the individual states, their cities, manufacturers, religions and schools. To someone used to modern almanacs and books of facts, it seems odd that so much data is presented in narrative instead of tabular form.
The book covers the rest of the world. The British Empire gets a lot of pages although very few of them are devoted to what it is now Canada The author notes that some people have some reservations about Britain: "Its speedy bankruptcy and dissolution was long ago predicted, in consequence of its enormous national debt". However the Mr. Perkins is more optimistic himself, "Although it is certain that her national debt can never be paid; and that many of the principles on which her government rests are unfounded; and although the crown must in the usual course of events soon be placed on the head of a female now fourteen years of ago, entirely incompetent to understand or manage the concerns of the nation, a mere burlesque upon government; yet her duration for a long period on the present basis is confidentialy expected".
When I first strarted reading the book, that reference to the person who become Queen Victoria was the one that struck me the most. I was prepared for most of the prevailing attitudes and prejudices of the time but not to think of the Old Queen as a helpless incompetent.

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