In a capitalist society both culture and creativity are commodified. Is this a problem?
Maybe it’s a bit weighty of a topic for you. It’s certainly something that consumes my thoughts for large spells of time but to wean you in to it gently, I’ll start this stage of the cultural revolution with an exemplar.
Let me ask you to consider another question, and forgive me if you think I’m patronising you because the answer seems so obvious!
If an author wants the most people possible to read his work (and most do) what should he/she do to achieve this?
Simple answer: Make the book available as easily as possible to the widest number of people at the cheapest possible price.
Ignoring the fact that even if you make a book available for free on every current ‘platform’ you aren’t guaranteeing readers - you can lead the reader to the book but you can’t make them read after all – it does seem a bit of a no-brainer that you do what you can to make the book available if you want people to read it.
In a capitalist world of course you have to add on ‘make it appealing’ which takes us down a whole new path of commodification – I will not dwell on this here but return to it at a later date. The point I am trying to make is that if you want people to read books you should price them sensibly and make them easily available.
So. Hold that thought. I wanted to read a book. The process starts:
I have very limited funds and a ‘budget’ for book-buying of £10 a month. Yet I read probably 10 books a month at least including work and pleasure related texts. So where possible I try to find the books I want to read for free. I can rarely get the kind of books I want to read free online (though some use of Project Guthenberg and the online library can bear fruit). When I fail online I try to access the books I’m interested in free via libraries – I have maintained some academic online library privileges over the past decade (mainly by taking a wide range of Open University courses) and more recently the National Library of Scotland has opened up much of its digital archive. But plenty remains stuck behind the academic paywall. I am a life ‘friend’ of an academic library but they won’t let me access their digital collection. So, sometimes, I have to resort to buying books.
I’ve been trying to get hold of a copy of R.D.S.Jack’s ‘Myths and the Mythmaker’ for five years. It was published in 2010 but it took me 2 years to find out it even existed (I was busy with other authors and Barrie had slipped off my radar for a time). Perhaps I didn’t try as hard as I might have in 2012– f the eye-watering price of £70 put me off – especially combined with a review that said most of the ground was covered in ‘The Road to Neverland’ (never trust reviews, it’s simply not true!) But since the death late last year of the author R.D.S.Jack who was perhaps Barrie’s greatest living advocate, I have felt increasingly uneasy about who will now carry the torch for Barrie into the future. There is some ‘interest’ in him from a range of quarters, but forgive my cynicism, most of them seem to be trying to shoe-horn Barrie into their own areas of research (feminism, modernism etc) and that does him a great dis-service. Barrie has been kicked enough over the centuries by the ignorant, the lazy and those with an axe to grind. He deserves much, much better.
So I turned again to an attempt to purchase the book. Result:
Myths and the Mythmaker: A Literary Account of J.M. Barrie's Formative Years. (SCROLL: Scottish Cultural Review of Language & Literature)
12 Nov 2010
by R. D. S. Jack
Eligible for FREE UK Delivery
Only 1 left in stock - order soon.
More buying choices
£43.95used & new(9 offers)
(In America it comes in at more than $100!!!)
The publishers are cited as Rodopi, now owned by Brill – whom Google reveals to be large academic publishers of some repute. Their reputation suggests highwayman to me!
And allergic as I am to highway robbery, I felt I had to try to go down the cheaper route ( I use the word ‘cheap’ with something of a sneer.) I discovered I could get a ‘used like new’ one for £45. To me that’s still an obscene amount of money to pay for a book. I could eat for more than a week for that. I would need to eat less well for a number of weeks in order to pay for it.
I didn’t buy it. I went online. I hunted it down via my online library access. After failing in 3 of my 4 possible options, I hit pay dirt. I was able to break through the paywall and offered the choice to read it online or download for a maximum of 21 days. All well and good. I started reading it online. I hate reading online. I downloaded it. I pretty quickly realised that this is a beezer of a book. One that I would need to refer to time and again. It’s an absolutely vital book for anyone with an interest in Barrie. (Mental note to self, write review on Amazon site to that effect!).
And so, I ‘just clicked’ and bought it at £45. I held back my ire at the capitalist economic models of ‘supply and demand’ and smug comments of the cultural elitists who claim ‘the value of anything is the price anyone is willing to pay’ still ring in my ears. Let me make it clear, I have no reservations regarding the quality or value of the book (priceless) but it still really irks me to have to pay that sort of money. It’s a perfect example of the price of culture. It’s a salutary lesson and it is disgusting that a book so central to our Scottish cultural and literary heritage should be hidden from the general reader. But this is the price of a capitalist, hierarchical, elitist ‘canonical’ structure.
And guess what. That’s kind of the point that Jack makes in the book. (okay he doesn’t mention capitalism but the rest is more or less consistent with his views.)
Does that give you any idea why it is that you just can’t read this book unless you are an academic or pretty well heeled?
Might I suggest there are three obvious reasons why a publisher would put out a book at a ridiculous price (given that there’s no way it can cost them this to publish – or if so, they shouldn’t be in business because Deveron Press can do it a lot cheaper – time to change the business model Brill!). The reasons are:
1) Naked Greed.
2) They don’t want people to read it.
3) They don’t think you should read it.
I suggest it’s a combination of all three reasons. The publishers know the ‘academic’ market will bear the cost. It’s just the other end of the ‘Amazon free’ spectrum. Books are seen as ‘product’ in a ‘marketplace’, so while Brill clearly work on the basis that if you feign exclusivity you can hike up the price, Amazon work on the spread betting principle of hoovering up the odd penny/dime on every single purchase that goes through their site. We are simply cultural sheep disguised as consumers, waiting to be skinned one way or the other.
So. Motive 1: Greed. Motive 3: they don’t want you to read it. There appears to be something of a ‘social cultural contract’ within the elite that says that as long as you are a) rich or b) part of academia and therefore by definition an intellecutal (?) you can gain access suggests that capitalism is at the heart of our academic model. I for one, have issues with this. It’s not enough to offer people ‘free’ tuition at higher education level (you’ll note this is only for undergraduate study not postgraduate study, that is a truly rarified intellectual arena – until which stage you are not considered ‘appropriate’ as a reader of books such as those published by the Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature. Unfair, I hear you cry. Undergrads can read those books too. Yes they can. If they are encouraged to. I have this nasty wee ‘impish’ voice in me that suggests that in Scottish academia it is the undergrads who help keep the postgrads and ‘true’ academics in their jobs – the classic hierarchical pyramid structure is alive and well in academia and this trickles down to Scots culture in general ( I will develop this point another time). For now I simply call them out. Shame on you publishers. Shame on you editorial boards (I know, you are simply soldiers following orders) and shame on you the Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature. I suggest all the above mentioned ‘they’s’ do not want you to know what Jack thinks about Barrie or Scottish Literature and culture. I suggest that his work doesn’t fit into their created dominant narrative and they don’t want you to read beyond the ‘canon’.
This is the rather unpleasant side effect of the formerly stated motive 2. Even if ‘they’ think that Jack’s book is a good book for ‘them’ to read and write about, somehow ‘they’ don’t think that ‘you’ or ‘I’ or any of us outwith the hallowed halls of academe should have it made available to read. Are we too wee, too poor and too stupid? Did you never realise how political an issue culture is? Or how significant a role publishing and reading plays in our culture?
It seems that our academic establishments and cultural bodies are in danger of selling us a Scotland where the general reader is not considered either capable of understanding or interested in engaging in Scots culture. Give us T2 Trainspotting and leave us to wallow eh? No offence Irvine Welsh, but I personally have more interest in the work of J.M.Barrie – and I’m not afraid to say it.
So what of the ‘book’ itself? Here is the promotional blurb:
J.M. Barrie's critical reputation is unusually problematic. Originally viewed as a genius to rank with Shaw and Wilde, Barrie soon fell victim to damaging psychological theories about his life and his patriotism. The few critics who have commented on Barrie have colluded with dominant myths about a figure who, like his most famous creation, never grew up, who abandoned Scotland and made light of his own people when serious social analyses of the nation's condition were called for, and who scorned the opportunities of University learning when at Edinburgh. Myths and the Mythmaker attempts to challenge these myths and offer a just revaluation of Barrie's genius. Through closely focused textual analyses, it dispels the popular images of Barrie as "escapist" writer and immature, mother-fixated artist. It seeks to replace the narrow prose canon on which the "Oedipal" and "Kailyard" myths are based with a thorough account of his Victorian apprenticeship. New research into Barrie's early work and criticism show the enduring influence of his Edinburgh education on his creative writing, his academic articles, and his own complex views on artistic genius.
This is exactly the kind of book I want to read – and it doesn’t disappoint. I’ve read the downloaded version and I am hanging by the post box waiting for the delivery of my gold-plated paperback copy due for delivery by the time this month’s Gateway goes out. You haven’t heard the last of this book, or of Barrie, from the Orraman believe me!
Oh, the good news is that for those of you who would now like to read some Barrie, even if you can’t afford to read about Barrie) and who are not averse to ereaders – you can pick up the COMPLETE J.M.BARRIE from Delphi Classics HERE for under a fiver. That’s 54 texts for about 9pence each.
Might I suggest that if you want to join the cultural revolution, you start by reading the books they DON’T want you to read, rather than flocking to the ones they are pushing in your face on a daily basis – whatever the price.
Let me end with a 'rif' on what is a currently popular/populist 'theme': Choose Books. Choose cultural freedom. Don’t allow anyone to tell you that Scotland is a pish, crap place where our cultural identity is revealed in any number of Trainspotting Generations. Sure Trainspotting has its place. I’m not suggesting we sanitise our view of our culture and ourselves. I’m just suggesting we don’t allow ourselves to be degraded by a cultural elite for whom we are so much cultural canon-fodder. When undergraduates are ‘taught’ Trainspotting’ over the works of J.M.Barrie I have to question quite where our cultural ‘head’ is at.
The Orraman is on holiday so for the festive season we have rooted out an episode of 'Twixt Desk and Shelves' set in the fictional publishing offices of The Pelican, in the equally (almost) fictional town of St Congan's. This is from December 2016. A lot of things (and people) in St Congan's haven't changed much in a century! This episode deals with the fallout of an argument about who can use 'the club.'
‘I read your dialogue on the club scandal,’ said a visitor, ‘it was quite right except for one thing, as far as I know.’
Printer: What was that? Of course the conversation was given very much as it took place. I was only mildly interested, and I knew nothing of the facts at first hand.
Visitor: You spoke of whist and whisky having too much of a show. But it’s a dry club. There are no intoxicants supplied on the premises.
Printer; I repeat that I gave the conversation as I got it. I am positive about certain names having been mentioned of fathers who had withdrawn from membership themselves and forbidden their sons to go because they came home later and not sober. (Here the speaker gave several names.) And that isn’t all. A teacher friend called one night, having business with one of the leading members. He found two leading members there – men well up in years – and both were in the state which is called, ‘well-to-do,’ probably on the principle of contraries. They started to quarrel over the business the teacher has broached, and words ran so high that he left in despair of getting any sense or satisfaction. Both the men called upon him next day and apologised. (Here again names were mentioned.)
Visitor: That may be; but you’ll find it as I say. The old provost, one of the founders of the club, stipulated for no drink, and in this he had his way.
Printer: Well of course there are two different ways of carrying it in. There is deck cargo and there is stowed cargo.
‘I read your article about the club,’ said another visitor , a young man, a day or two later. ‘I may tell you that I was one of those who voted against the use of the rooms being given. I didn’t object to the wounded men having the run of the place, but to the way the thing was gone about. I should have let the Red Cross have the sole right to the place as tenants. The club is nothing to me; though I’m going up there to have a game of billiards now.
Printer (feeling there is some amount of contradiction here): But, my dear chap, what’s the good of voting against a thing if you favour it?
Young Visitor: As I say, I objected to the way the thing was gone about. And for that matter I was not altogether averse to the course taken by the majority. The matter was very fully considered, and there’s a good deal to be said for the majority .
Printer: Now you’re talking! Let’s hear what you have to say. I believe in giving both sides a show.
Young Visitor: Well, some of those who voted against the rooms being given knew something. For one thing, the wounded are being used by some folk for self-advertisement. Miss Dugald got the loan of Andrew Wilson’s cars, and drove the men here and there. Her name alone appeared as the Lady Bountiful, while Andrew was finding both the cars and the petrol, and his name never had a look in, though it should have helped his business to have the fair acknowledgement. Petrol costs money just now.
Printer: I had him in the other day, and he said he had read the article, but he offered no comment either way.
Young Visitor: Yes, that’s Andrew all over. And he had had some experience of the wounded men too. He gave them the use of a room at the Harmony and they carried in drink, and were very noisy and rackety. He had to stop it. They were stopped at the Duff Arms too. They walked upon the billiard table there, and were a downright nuisance. Still, I would have been in favour of letting them the rooms outright, and holding the Red Cross responsible for any damage done.
Printer: It’s a pity you didn’t carry a motion to that effect. I daresay the future before these poor fellows is calculated to make them a bit regardless.
‘A man was saying last night that you had stated in The Pelican what was not correct.’ So said a neighbour, coming in and starting to his tale without preliminary courtesy.
‘Good morning Mr Gill,’ said the Printer, bowing with marked elaborateness from behind his machine.
The hasty visitor repeated the omitted flourish, and proceeded with his story. ‘The Pelican said that no small businesses had been closed up locally, and this man pointed out that Cunningham the painter had had to shut shop and join the colours, and that you yourself wouldn’t have got your present premises if the previous tenant hadn’t had to go up for service.
Printer (smiling): Well, that’s what the Yankees call ‘a fair hoist.’ But did the Pelican say that? Oh, I remember! There was a note of four or five lines. The note stated, among other things, that while the English Tommy jeered at and insulted the slacker, the Scottish soldier congratulated him on his escape, and that I hadn’t seen a single badge being worn or heard of a business having to be sold to meet the call. This was written partly under your own inspiration. I had said that I thought the reference, in certain verses, to buying a ‘graip’ [Angled, dung-fork] from the military representative was a little below the belt; that I thought he was not to be brought in that way; and that he was independent to the point of brusqueness. You answered that, so far from being the case St Congans was famous for a great many exemptions since I came here – of young men too, and not even young men who are actually in charge of business. The whole position is different in large centres. There the members of the tribunals do not know the men who come before them; know nothing of their circumstances except what is stated in evidence; and consequently can have none of the sympathy that acquaintanceship naturally begets.
Mr Gill: Well, you see that the military representative has been changed.
Painter: Yes, but I take it that he has made the change himself- has resigned. I’m not denying that St Congans men have done and are doing their full share of the fighting. The casualty list shows that. But I do say that there isn’t much State-consciousness, or Community-consciousness, in the local population. I haven’t met an ardent politician since I came here. Start what subject you will, the local man tends to swing round to local gossip. Parliament is, of course, far away. There’s Taylor, the Socialist, of course. He is keen on all public questions. He is understood as an exception. He and I have a certain grim satisfaction in the way in which the war has brought home the fact of citizenship and personal political responsibility to people who have always spoken and acted as if politics didn’t matter. And now, by the Lord, it is evident that politics are all-important” If all the working men of Europe had been like Taylor and myself there wouldn’t have been a Kaiser or a war-lord in the civilised world today. The fact that working men neglected this, and turned up their noses at those whom they called ‘Socialist cranks’ is costing them their very lives. As I wrote long ago, ‘Duties neglected are as crimes committed, and may be even more deadly in their consequences.’ The penalty of neglecting to take your fair intelligent share in the government of the country is that you shall be misgoverned by other people, even to the taking of your life in a quarrel of which you don’t understand the most elementary meaning – even now. It is said that we are fighting for freedom, and I fervently hope and trust that we are; for I have always exercised my freedom to say and do what seemed to me good against the powers that be, both great and small. But is Rome fighting for freedom? Will the Czar give his own subjects freedom? Will he stop sending his subjects to Siberia without trial? Will he discontinue rewarding the leaders of the Black Hundred who massacre Jews on the holy days of the Greek Church? Freedom is not mere absence of restraint. It means the power to do things as well as the mere liberty to do them. I am free to play the fiddle or read Greek: but I never had lessons so I am without the power. A man who is uneducated is not free; the doors of opportunity are barred to him by his ignorance. The man whose means of livelihood are the property of another is not free. He has to accept the master’s terms. He has to work to accept the price the masters class is willing to give. With all his trade unionism – where he has any – he has not lessened by one penny the blackmail that the master-class is able to levy upon his labour. Only one thing will do that, and that is public ownership. And we’re going to have some of that.
Gill (doubtfully): Socialism?
Printer: Yes, Socialism and plenty of it. Unlimited nationalisation and municipalisation in the interests of the public as against the profit-mongers. Socialism, the only sincere politics that ever were or any good, the only politics that please everybody when once the thing is socialised.
The Orraman will be back in the New Year.
By James Leatham 1893
For him was lever han at his beede’s hed
A twenty bokes, clothed in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philsophie
Than robes riche, or fidel, or sautrie.
Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ (Tyrwhitt’s Text)
You will find on my shelves neither Elzevirs nor Baskervilles, neither black letter folios nor Shakespearian quartos. I have but few books containing plates of Bewick’s, and none at all in the bindings of Zaensdorf or Riviere. Editions de luxe are forbidden fruit, and the radiant reprints of the Kelmscott Press are equally beyond me. Here and thre is to be seen a Pickering; and when I get a good book specially bound for myself I confess to a weakness for half-morocco, gilt tops, and a profusion of hand tooling. But for the most part I am utilitarian in regard to both the paper and the bindings of my books; though many men with a thousand a year are much worse friends to the bookseller.
I do not regard as a brother the man who keeps his books hidden away in boxes and presses. And yet, among those who use books, even he is not the worst. I have heard of literary and scientific men – mostly the latter – who look upon their books as tools merely; and, after they have used them on a given piece of work, dispose of them – keeping practically no books beside them at all. Such creatures are beyond the pale of humanity. They ought to be denied the fellowship of the mediocre living till they learn perforce to value the companionship of the mighty dead. Your true lover of books, your genuine friend of the humanities, wants to have his authors ranked out and sized off around him in shelves of not more than the due depth – the titles and authors’ names looking serenely out upon him as he sits in mid-room able at a glance to apprehend what a goodly company he has gathered under his roof.
A man does not want to be always hobnobbing with his friends; but it is half the good of friendship to know that Tom, Dick and Harry are there, and are your friends when you want them. As we never miss the water till the well runs dry, so we do not realise how much to us is even the sight of books till one day we find ourselves stranded somewhere away from the resources of civilisation for six weeks with no more numerous company than Henry’s Bible, Boston’s ‘Fourfold State,’ ‘The Saints Everlasting Rest,’ ‘Grace, Abounding,’ and one or other of Cassell’s compilations.
When the average Philistine looks round your walls and asks ‘have you read all these?’ he is puzzled and sometimes contemptuous if you answer, ‘No, and never shall.’ To a person of ideas a library is a dictionary; and even a Philistine would admit that one is not expected to read one’s dictionary through. It is not enough that we have as many books as we can read. One does not want to sit down to dinner at a table which bears only the number of dishes and the quantity of food on each which he can eat. As regards both the food of the mind and that of the body, man wants alternatives – the power of choice. Apart from works that are chiefly valuable for purposes of reference, there are other books which we want to dip into only occasionally -such as Boswell’s ‘Johnson’ and Coleridge’s ‘Table Talk’ which one can open almost anywhere and read on with profit. These you want to have by you in abundance. Others, again, have their texture so closely woven that you must begin at the foremost end of the web and follow their fabric, not only inch by inch, but thread by thread, or, to drop metaphor, not only paragraph by paragraph – taking in the contents of a page, as Carlyle said, with a sweep of the eye – but line by line; in short, reading your author, and not merely skimming him. Such books can only be properly tackled at times and seasons. Whether one shall read or not in a spare half-hour depends so much on whether the book for the mood is there that one must have a large choice. Johnson was eminently right when he insisted on the benefits of promiscuous borrowing in a library. Even the bee – type of industry as she is – does not gather all the honey from every flower she visits. There is something quite formidable about the person who can sit down to a book like ‘The Decline and Fall’ and clear off thirteen centuries of Roman history with the mechanical persistency of a bricklayer piling his cubes.
I am prepared to admit to the collector’s weaknesses for broad margins, hand-made paper, deckled edges, eighteenth century woodcuts, quaint head and tail pieces and the sometimes absurd chapter initials of our grandfathers’ grandfathers. Yet no one pretends to deny that the subject and style of a book are not more than its mechanical get-up, and much more than such adventitious circumstances as its age, its being a first edition, or its having belonged to a great man whose autograph it bears. To show that a book is more to me than its incidentals, I may tell you that, economy apart, I don’t mind a book remaining in the publisher’s covers. Sometimes the machine stamped case is more artistic and better finished than the hand work of the binder. For first editions, moreover, I care less than nothing at all. As second thoughts are better than first, so subsequent editions are better than first ones. One can never judge of one’s work either in MS or in proof-sheet. The joy and pride of creation takes months to wear off even after they have begun to abate, and that process does not properly set in till one has seen one’s thoughts duly printed and sent forth to the world. What man is there who, having published a book or pamphlet, has not found dozens of ideas occur to him after his first edition is away, and wants a second in order that he may get these in, as also that he may improve defects of grammar and syntax that he did not notice in reading the proofs? You can’t thoroughly criticise your writing till it is at least a year old. It takes the four seasons to wean us from the conceit of proprietorship. Indeed, it often happens that an author does not get outside one piece of work till he had undergone the throes of parturition with another. And so first editions move me not.
Somebody must read new books. In fact, that is what we feed and tame the reviewer to do; although ‘tis said he scamps his work. For my own part, I prefer to read old and famed books, as Emerson advises, ‘Be sure, then, to read no mean books,’ says he. ‘Shun the spawn of the press on the gossip of the hour. Do not read what you shall learn, without asking, the street and the train.’
In the library of a wise man there is one department of literature that should be but sparingly represented: I mean prose fiction. Life is short, and in novels one must read much to learn little. Modern novelists have mostly forgot – if they ever knew – the original purpose of the novel. As conceived by Richardson, the first novelist, it was to convey information and ‘moral reflections’ through the medium of a story – the plot to stand in the same relation to the solid, informative part of the work as the string of a necklace does to the beads. To make the social and psychological value of the early novels still greater, the types of character brought together in them were always distinct, illustrating the thought, speech, and manners of a whole class. Now, however, the novel is all string and no beads. The favourites are writers who give no information, who never generalise, who have no discernible social or psychological purpose in view, whose characters are not types, but simply people to whom things happen. A novelist is esteemed by the average reader to-day, not for how much he can teach through the medium of his art, but for the directness of his narrative and its exclusion of everything except the dialogue, incidents, and ‘situations’ strictly needed to help on the plot. Meredith, George Eliot, and Mrs. Humphrey Ward are among the shining exceptions to this rule; but the fact that they are not as popular as Rider Haggard shows that their writing is not the kind of thing the public wants and is accustomed to.
Walter Scott is an example of the old useful school. Scott tells us about feudalism, chivalry, the chase, and the tilt-yard; about the architecture and ecclesiastical institutions of the Middle Ages, the methods of tillage practised then, the beasts that roamed wild in the forests, the customs of the people, their food, their dress, their rude houses and furniture, their minstrelsy, their outdoor sports. He gives us historical portraits which, if not always full and fair, at least have a tendency to send the reader to sources where he will get them both full and fair. In these Waverley Novels we get glimpses of monastic life and the medieval secret societies and tribunals, such as the Vehmgericht; also of the practice of handfasting as it obtained among the borderers, and according to which a man and woman lived together for a short probationary period before marriage, to test their mutual fitness for the conjugal traces. Something of all this is to be learned from Scott. The beads are strung upon a thread of narrative usually absorbing,* written in a certain loose but sonorous style, and characterised by fine dry humour, bold delineation of character, and description not less spirited for being faithful. For a boy to know Scott is the beginning of a liberal education. I know of no writer who does so much to beget and foster intellectual interest. But in spite of all this, Scott is not generally in favour. Young whipper-snappers sneer at him because he wrote ‘Rob Roy’ and ‘Count Robert of Paris,’ and are prepared to uphold against him the authors of ‘She’ and ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.’ Which tells its own tale.
*(the plot of a novel like ‘The Antiquary’ is as subtle, and the upshot as unexpected, as any entanglement I have met with in the whole range of fiction, ancient or modern.)
The fault of the novel is that it is so largely concerned with ‘machinery.’ In literature one wants life experiences clarified and concentrated. To read of railway journeys and sea voyages, to eat other people’s dinners over again in black and white, to wade through pages upon pages of non-didactic dialogue or descriptions of faces and postures – all this is too tiresome even if it were not to unprofitable. Novels are good enough for people who can’t assimilate an idea unless it is presented in a pictoral or dramatic setting, or for those who don’t want ideas at all, but read merely to kill the time in life which they don’t know how to use. To those who read to learn, Green’s History is vastly more entertaining than the best society novel; and as regards the great majority of novels of all sorts, it is only the sober fact to say of them that truth is especially stranger to that sort of fiction.
Emerson is exceedingly felicitous in his statement of what it is we get in real literature. In the essay (on ‘Books’) from which I have already quoted he says:
‘Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries, in a thousand years, have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom. The men themselves were hid and inaccessible, solitary, impatient of interruption, fenced by etiquette; but the thought which they did not uncover to their bosom friend is here written out in transparent words to us, the strangers of another age.’
With such associates, the wonder is that the bibliophile is not more jealous of his time and more exclusive as to the company he keeps. Not every person can meet on terms of equality with the man who has assimilated the best thoughts of Plato and Shakespeare, of More and Bacon, of Locke and Johnson and Adam Smith and Goethe.
These friends are like no others in that they give so much in return for your mere attention. The theatre goer pays five shillings for a stall and two hours’ amusement; though he has no guarantee that he will not be bored. For the same sum well expended I may go home with a month’s good reading and have something to enliven the walls of my room and give it an individuality, to say nothing of getting part of my money back again if I want to sell the book. The friendship of the immortals costs little to gain and less to retain. My every-day friends talk and I must listen, though the best of their news may be that they had new potatoes for dinner to-day. The friends of the intellect are silent till you bid them speak; they do not talk small beer (or new potatoes); and they are dumb again if you do but withdraw your attention from them. Shakespeare never stays too long; More is never prosy; Goldsmith and Elia are never dull. They don’t tilt over your chairs to the hazard of the connection between back and seat; neither do they sit with your hearthrug doubled up under their muddy boots or chair leg. With all the virtues of your most brilliant friends they have none of the defects of your dull ones.
Let no collector of stamps or coins, no ‘bringer together of useless posts and crocks’ uprear his head and attempt to justify his hobby as against the love of books. To the student sail argosies from all lands and from all times laden with treasures that thieves do not break through and steal, for knowledge is the least coveted of all forms of wealth. To the book-lover time and space and seasons hardly count. In one day he may in spirit be in all four corners of the globe without stirring beyond his own room. While ‘icicles hang by the wall’ and frost-work landscapes cover his window, he may sail beneath a tropic sun among islands that ‘lift their fronded palms in air.’ With Plato he may listen to Socrates winding a cocksure opponent round his finger in the market-place at Athens. With Flaubert he may wander through barbaric Carthaginian streets or look shudderingly on the ghastly rites of the worship of Moloch. On a sultry summer afternoon he may lie, pipe in mouth, behind a hedge, while his fancy follows the Turkish host in its last deadly-desperate assault on Constantinople – may read of that line of attack whose composition and movements are described by Gibbon with all the pomp of his stately style:
The foremost rank consisted of the refuse of the hose, a voluntary crowd who fought without order or command – of the feebleness of age or childhood, of peasants or vagrants, of all who had joined the camp in the blind hope of plunder and martyrdom. The common impulse drove them to the walls; the most audacious to climb were instantly precipitated; and not a dart, not a bullet of the Christians was idly wasted on the accumulated throng. But their strength and their ammunition were wasted in this laborious defence. The ditch was filled with the bodies of the slain, and of this devoted vanguard to death was more serviceable than the life.
The Fall of Constantinople had its advantages to European science and philosophy; but the lover of books will read of occurences more directly serviceable to human progress which were yet unattended by any of the horrors depicted by Gibbon.
But probably enough has been said. Book-lovers are, perhaps, seldom made. I fancy they are mostly born. I think it would be noted that the boy who is to love and cherish books in after life has already a way of his own of handling them. This passion will be the only one he will never regret. In health and in sickness, in summer and winter, in wet day and dry, books, the choicest heritage of the ages, will be to him the best of friends. He may love a woman to be jilted, and he may live to see her the drudge and slattern of another. He may rear daughters to hand them over to young fellows whom he despises. He may see his chiefest chum take to drink and become a blear-eyed, prematurely aged wretch, with shaky hand and fetid breath, impoverished in means, feeble in mind, and foul in body. Without being selfishly careless or stupidly absorbed through all this, books may still afford him a joy that never palls, a bliss without alloy, a gain that has no offsets. In youth they will open and furnish his mind, lifting him clear-eyed, from out the ruck of mortals. In his prime they will tone down the vanity of success in him by presenting ideals and exemplars that beggar his little local achievements. In old age they will be his consolation amid failing powers and the neglect of the young world. Death alone need separate him from these best of friends.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.