« AnteriorContinuar »
We should never confuse functions or apply wrong tests. What can books do for us? Dr. Johnson, the least pedantic of men, put the whole matter into a nutshell (a cocoanut shell, if you will — Heaven forbid that I should seek to compress the great Doctor within any narrower limits than my metaphor requires !), when he wrote that a book should teach us either to enjoy life or endure it. «Give us enjoyment!» « Teach us endurance ! » Hearken to the ceaseless demand and the perpetual prayer of an ever-unsatisfied and always-suffering humanity!
How is a book to answer the ceaseless demand ?
Self-forgetfulness is of the essence of enjoyment, and the author who would confer pleasure must possess the art, or know the trick, of destroying for the time the reader's own personality. Undoubtedly the easiest way of doing this is by the creation of a host of rival personalities — hence the number and popularity of novels. Whenever a novelist fails, his book is said to fag; that is, the reader suddenly (as in skating) comes bump down upon his own personality, and curses the unskillful author. No lack of characters and continual motion is the easiest recipe for a novel, which, like a beggar, should always be kept moving on.” Nobody knows this better than Fielding, whose novels, like most good ones, are full of inns.
When those who are addicted to what is called “improving reading” inquire of you petulantly why you cannot find change of company and scene in books of travel, you should answer cautiously that when books of travel are full of inns, atmosphere, and motion, they are as good as any novel; nor is there any reason, in the nature of things, why they should not always be so, though experience proves the contrary.
The truth or falsehood of a book is immaterial. George Borrow's Bible in Spain ” is, I suppose, true; though now that I come to think of it, in what is to me a new light, one remembers that it contains some odd things. But was not Borrow the accredited agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society ? Did he not travel (and he had a free hand) at their charges ? Was he not befriended by our minister at Madrid, Mr. Villiers, subsequently Earl of Clarendon in the peerage of England ? It must be true; and yet at this moment I would as lief read a chapter of the «Bible in Spain ” as I would “Gil Blas”; nay, I positively would give the preference to Señor Giorgio.
Nobody can sit down to read Borrow's books without as completely forgetting himself as if he were a boy in the forest with Gurth and Wamba.
Borrow is provoking and has his full share of faults, and, though the owner of a style, is capable of excruciating offenses. His habitual use of the odious word “individual ” as a noun substantive (seven times in three pages of “The Romany Rye ») elicits the frequent groan, and he is certainly once guilty of calling fish the finny tribe.” He believed himself to be animated by an intense hatred of the Church of Rome, and disfigures many of his pages by Lawrence-Boythorn-like tirades against that in. stitution; but no Catholic of sense need on this account deny him. self the pleasure of reading Borrow, whose one dominating passion was camaradarie, and who hob-a-nobbed in the friendliest spirit with priest and gipsy in a fashion as far beyond praise as it is beyond description by any pen other than his own. Hail to thee, George Borrow! Cervantes himself, and Gil Blas, do not more effectually carry their readers into the land of the Cid than does this miraculous agent of the Bible Society, by favor of whose pleasantness we can, any hour of the week, enter Villafranca by night, or ride into Galicia on an Andalusian stallion (which proved to be a foolish thing to do), without costing anybody a peseta, and at no risk whatever to our necks — be they long or short.
Cooks, warriors, and authors must be judged by the effects they produce; toothsome dishes, glorious victories, pleasant books - these are our demands. We have nothing to do with ingredients, tactics, or methods. We have no desire to be admitted into the kitchen, the council, or the study. The cook may clean her saucepans how she pleases — the warrior place his men as he likes — the author handle his material or weave his plot as best he can — when the dish is served we only ask, Is it good ? when the battle has been fought, Who won ? when the book comes out, Does it read ?
Authors ought not to be above being reminded that it is their first duty to write agreeably — some very disagreeable men have succeeded in doing so, and there is therefore no need for any one to despair. Every author, be he grave or gay, should try to make his book as ingratiating as possible. Reading is not a duty, and has consequently no business to be made disagreeable. Nobody is under any obligation to read any other man's book.
Literature exists to please, – to lighten the burden of men's lives; to make them for a short while forget their sorrows and their sins, their silenced hearths, their disappointed hopes, their grim futures, and those men of letters are the best loved who have best performed literature's truest office. Their name is happily legion, and I will conclude these disjointed remarks by quoting from one of them, as honest a parson as ever took tithe or voted for the Tory candidate, the Rev. George Crabbe. Hear him in «The Frank Courtship":
«< I must be loved”; said Sybil; 'I must see
The man in terrors, who aspires to me:
Were an office to be opened for the insurance of literary reputations, no critic at all likely to be in the society's service would refuse the life of a poet who could write like Crabbe. Cardinal Newman, Mr. Leslie Stephen, Mr. Swinburne, are not always of the same way of thinking, but all three hold the one true faith about Crabbe.
But even were Crabbe now left unread, which is very far from being the case, his would be an enviable fame — for was he not one of the favorite poets of Walter Scott, and whenever the closing scene of the great magician's life is read in the pages of Lockhart, must not Crabbe's name be brought upon the reader's quivering lip?
To soothe the sorrow of the soothers of sorrow, to bring tears to the eyes and smiles to the cheeks of the lords of human smiles and tears, is no mean ministry, and it is Crabbe's.
Complete. From «Obiter Dicta.» BOOK-BUYING
The most distinguished of living Englishmen, who, great as he
is in many directions, is perhaps inherently more a man of
letters than anything else, has been overheard mournfully to declare that there were more booksellers' shops in his native town sixty years ago, when he was a boy in it, than are to-day to be found within its boundaries. And yet the place “all unabashed” now boasts its bookless self a city!
Mr. Gladstone was, of course, referring to second-hand book. shops. Neither he nor any other sensible man puts himself out about new books. When a new book is published, read an old one, was the advice of a sound though surly critic. It is one of the boasts of letters to have glorified the term “second-hand,” which other crafts have “soiled to all ignoble use." But why it has been able to do this is obvious. All the best books are nec. essarily second-hand. The writers of to-day need not grumble. Let them “bide a wee. If their books are worth anything, they too one day will be second-hand. If their books are not worth anything, there are ancient trades still in full operation amongst us— the pastry cooks and the trunk makers — who must have paper.
But is there any substance in the plaint that nobody now buys books, meaning thereby second-hand books ? The late Mark Pattison, who had sixteen thousand volumes, and whose lightest word has therefore weight, once stated that he had been informed, and verily believed, that there were men of his own University of Oxford who, being in uncontrolled possession of annual incomes of not less than £500, thought they were doing the thing handsomely if they expended £50 a year upon their libraries. But we are not bound to believe this unless we like. There was a touch of morosity about the late Rector of Lincoln which led him to take gloomy views of men, particularly Oxford men,
No doubt arguments a priori may readily be found to support the contention that the habit of book-buying is on the decline. I confess to knowing one or two men, not Oxford men either, but Cambridge men (and the passion of Cambridge for literature is a byword), who, on the plea of being pressed with business, or because they were going to a funeral, have passed a bookshop in a strange town without so much as stepping inside “just to see whether the fellow had anything.” But painful as facts of this sort necessarily are, any damaging inference we might feel disposed to draw from them is dispelled by a comparison of price lists. Compare a bookseller's catalogue of 1862 with one of the present year, and your pessimism is washed away by the tears which unrestrainedly flow as you see what good fortune you have lost. A young book-buyer might well turn out upon Primrose Hill and bemoan his youth, after comparing old cata. logues with new.
Nothing but American competition, grumble some old stagers.
Well! why not? This new battle for the books is a free fight, not a private one, and Columbia has joined in.” Lower prices are not to be looked for. The book-buyer of 1900 will be glad to buy at to-day's prices. I take pleasure in thinking he will not be able to do so. Good finds grow scarcer and scarcer. True it is that but a few short weeks ago I picked up (such is the happy phrase, most apt to describe what was indeed a “street casualty”) a copy of the original edition of «Endymion” (Keat's poem- subscriber to Mudie's — not Lord Beaconsfield's novel) for the easy equivalent of half a crown — but then that was one of my lucky days. The enormous increase of booksellers' catalogues and their wide circulation amongst the trade has already produced a hateful uniformity of prices. Go where you will, it is all the same to the odd sixpence. Time was when you could map out the country for yourself with some hopefulness of plunder. There were districts where the Elizabethan dramatists were but slenderly protected. A raid into the “bonnie North Coun. trie » sent you home again cheered with chapbooks and weighted with old pamphlets of curious interest; whilst the west of England seldom failed to yield a crop of novels. I remember getting a complete set of the Bronté books in the original issues at Torquay, I may say, for nothing. Those days are over. Your country bookseller is, in fact, more likely, such tales does he hear of London auctions, and such catalogues does he receive by every post, to exaggerate the value of his wares than to part with them pleasantly, and as a country bookseller should, just to clear my shelves, you know, and give me a bit of room. The only compensation for this is the catalogues themselves. You get them, at least, for nothing, and it cannot be denied that they make mighty pretty reading.