Having mentioned the copy of The Ring and the Book that I bought in a used bookstore some years back, I took it down the other night to start reading.
I’ve always liked Robert Browning, and I’m enjoying the poem so far; his Shakespeare-redolent language does a lot to mitigate the hyper chattiness of the poet over his melodramatic subject of adultery, jealousy and murder, which he covers in about 500 pages but would have been dispatched in this day and age in an hour of Law & Order (here’s the full text of the poem on the Web).
The sad thing about this particular copy of the book, dated 1890 and part of the Riverside Edition of Browning’s works, is that it appears that no one has ever read it. The first few pages had slight pencil marks at some of the lines, but I’m somewhere around page 100 now and they’ve long since disappeared.
And now I’m running into the most telltale sign of all: uncut pages. The paper’s quite old and very fragile, and it’s difficult to separate the pages cleanly, or even turn some of them, without them tearing and falling apart.
Aside from the certain knowledge I have by way of Antiques Roadshow that the value of this late 19th-century book has now diminished because of this, I can’t help but think how lamentable it is that this book sat for so many years on shelves without being looked into.
I can picture it new, in a stack perhaps of the complete Browning offered, say, for Christmas of 1890, the year after the poet’s death, in a bookshop somewhere in Boston. It’s bought for a student just matriculating at Harvard, say, or by a young swain picking it up for his lady love, whom he believes has the making of a great poet in her.
Or it was bought by a husband for his wife, who always loved the Sonnets from the Portuguese written by Browning’s wife, and while the wife loved getting the book, she found it dull going and quietly put it aside.
The Ring and the Book was a very popular poem in its day and I don’t think its repute had waned in 1890. But for whatever reason, this copy never got read.
It’s made me think of many of the books on my own shelves that I’ve not made it through, or which came to me in a secondhand way. The unread book on a shelf has the same melancholy as the remainder bin: Someone spent a lot of time putting this together, he or she sought to reach other people, and — up it goes on the shelf, not to move again until the a sale of yard or estate.
It’s been nearly 120 years since this copy of the book first saw daylight, and now its time has come at last. I pledge to read it — actually, keep reading it — to finish the artistic circle the author begins to draw when he sets forth on the authorial waters. I’m reminded of the famous experiment Michael Kinsley ran some years ago when he placed notes in random copies of several popular best-selling books to see whether anyone actually read them (he talks about it in this interview; scroll down a bit and you’ll see it).
And to this day, no one ever saw the notes. They still sit unseen on shelves around the country, awaiting the ministrations of a future reader. Here’s hoping they don’t have to wait 118 years.