Sunday, March 04, 2007

On the Decline of the Book



It is an interesting speculation by what means the Book lost its old position in this country. This is not only an interesting speculation, but one which nearly concerns a vital matter. For if men fall into the habit of neglecting true books in an old and traditional civilization, the inaccuracy of their judgments and the illusions to which they will be subject, must increase.

To take but one example: history. The less the true historical book is read and the more men depend upon ephemeral statement, the more will legend crystallize, the harder will it be to destroy in the general mind some comforting lie, and the great object-lesson of politics (which is an accurate knowledge of how men have acted in the past) will become at last unknown.

There are many, especially among younger men, who would contest the premiss upon which all this is founded. They may point out, for instance, that the actual number of bound books bought in a given time at present is much larger than ever it was before. They may point out again, and with justice, that the proportion of the population which reads books of any sort, though perhaps not larger than it was three hundred years ago, is very much larger than it was one hundred years ago. And it may further be affirmed with truth that the range of subjects now covered by books produced and sold is much wider than ever it was before.

All this is true; and yet it is also true that the Book as a factor in our civilization has not only declined but has almost disappeared. Were many more dogs to be possessed in England than are now possessed, but were they to be all mongrels, among which none could be found capable of retrieving, or of following a fox or a hare with any discipline, one would have a right to say that the dog as a factor of our civilization had declined. Were many more men in England able to ride horses more or less, but were the number of those who rode constantly and for pleasure enormously to diminish, and were the new millions who could just manage to keep on horseback to prefer animals without spirit on which they would feel safe, one would have a right to say that the horse was declining as a factor in our civilization; and this is exactly what has happened with the Book.

The excellence of a book and its value as a book depend upon two factors, which are usually, though not always, united in varied proportions: first, that it should put something of value to the reader, whether of value as a discovery and an enlargement of wisdom or of value as a new emphasis laid upon old and sound morals; secondly, that this thing added or renewed in human life should be presented in such a manner as to give permanent aesthetic pleasure.

That is not a first-rate book which, while it is admirably written, teaches something false or something evil; nor is that a first-rate book which, though it discover a completely new thing, or emphasize the most valuable department of morals, is so constructed as to be unreadable. Now it will not be denied that as far as these two factors are concerned--and I repeat they are almost always found in combination--the position of the Book has dwindled almost to nothingness. One could give examples of almost every kind: one could show how poetry, no matter how appreciated or praised, no longer sells. One could show--and this is one of the worst signs of all--how men will buy by the hundred thousand anything at all which has the hall mark of an established reputation, quite careless as to their love of it or their appetite for it. One could further show how more than one book of permanent value in English life has been discovered in our generation outside England, and has been as it were thrust upon the English public by foreign opinion.

But for my purpose it will be sufficient to take one very important branch which I can claim to have watched with some care, and that is the branch of History.

It may be said with truth that in our generation no single first-rate piece of history has enjoyed an appreciable sale. That is not true of France, it is not true of the United States, it is not even true of Germany in her intellectual decline, but it is true of England.

History is an excellent test. No man will read history, at least history of an instructive sort, unless he is a man who can read a book, and desires to possess one. To read History involves not only some permanent interest in things not immediately sensible, but also some permanent brain-work in the reader; for as one reads history one cannot, if one is an intelligent being, forbear perpetually to contrast the lessons it teaches with the received opinions of our time. Again, History is valuable as an example in the general thesis I am maintaining, because no good history can be written without a great measure of hard work. To make a history at once accurate, readable, useful, and new, is probably the hardest of all literary efforts; a man writing such history is driving more horses abreast in his team than a man writing any other kind of literary matter. He must keep his imagination active; his style must be not only lucid, but also must arrest the reader; he must exercise perpetually a power of selection which plays over innumerable details; he must, in the midst of such occupations, preserve unity of design, as much as must the novelist or the playwright; and yet with all this there is not a verb, an adjective or a substantive which, if it does not repose upon established evidence, will not mar the particular type of work on which he is engaged.

As an example of what I mean, consider two sentences: The first is taken from the 432nd page of that exceedingly unequal publication, the _Cambridge History of the French Revolution_; the second I have made up on the spur of the moment; both deal with the Battle of Wattignies. The "Cambridge History" version runs as follows:

On October 15 the relieving force, 50,000 strong, attacked the Austrian covering force at Wattignies; the battle raged all that day and was most furious on the right, in front of the village of Wattignies, which was taken and lost three times; on the 17th the French expected another general engagement but the enemy had drawn off.

There are here five great positive errors in six lines. The French were not 50,000 strong, the attack on the 15th was not on Wattignies, but on Dourlers; Wattignies was not taken and lost three times; the fight of the 15th was least pressed on the right (harder on the left and hardest in the centre) and no one--not the least recruit--expected Coburg to come back on the 17th. Why, he had crossed the Sambre at every point the day before! As for negative errors, or errors of omission, they are capital, and the chief is that the victory was won on the second day, the 16th, of which no mention is made.

Now contrast such a sentence with the following:

On October 15th the relieving force, 42,000 strong, attacked the Austrian centre at Dourlers, and made demonstrations upon its wings; the attack upon Dourlers (which village had been taken and lost three times) having failed, upon the following day, October 16th, the extreme left of the enemy's position at Wattignies was attacked and carried; the enemy thus outflanked was compelled to retreat, and Maubeuge was relieved the same evening.

In the first sentence (which bears the hall mark of the University) every error that could possibly be made in so few lines has been made. The numbers are wrong; the nature of the fighting is misstated; the village in the centre is confused with that on the extreme right; the critical second day is altogether omitted, and every portion of the sentence, verb, adjective, and substantive, is either directly inaccurate or indirectly conveys an inaccurate impression. The second sentence, bald in style and uninteresting in presentation as the first, has the merit of telling the truth. But--and here is the point--it would be impossible to criticize the first sentence unless someone had read up the battle, and to read up that battle one has to depend on five or six documents, some unpublished (like much of Jourdan's Memoirs), some of them involving a visit to Maubeuge itself, some, like Pierrat's book, very difficult to obtain (for it is neither in the British Museum nor in the Bodleian) some few the writings of contemporary eyewitnesses, and yet themselves demonstrably inaccurate. All these must be read and collated, and if possible the actual ground of the battle visited, before the first simple inaccurate sentence can be properly criticized or the second bald but accurate sentence framed. None of these authorities can have been so much as heard of by the official historian I have quoted.

It would be redundant to press the point. Most readers know well enough what labour the just writing of history involves, and how excellent a type it is of that "making of a book" which art is, as I have said, imperilled by apathy at the present day.

Consider for a moment who were those that purchased historical works in this country in the past. There were, first of all, the landed gentry. In almost every great country-house you will find a good old library, and that good old library you will discover to be, as a rule, most valuable and most complete in what concerns the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. A very large proportion of history, and history of the best sort, is to be found upon those shelves. The standard dwindles, though it is fairly well maintained during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. Then--as a rule--it abruptly comes to an end. One may take as a sort of bourne, the two great books Macaulay's History and Kinglake's, for an earlier and a later limit. Most of these libraries contain Macaulay; some few Kinglake; hardly one possesses later works of value.

It may be urged in defence of the buyer that no later works of value exist. Put so broadly, the statement is erroneous; but the truth which it contains is in itself dependent upon the lack of public support for good historical work. When there is a fortune for the man who writes in accordance with whatever form of self-appreciation happens for the moment to be popular, while a steady view and an accurate presentation of the past can find no sale, then that steady view and that accurate presentation cannot be pursued save by men who are wealthy, or by men who are endowed, but even wealthy men will hesitate to write what they know will not be read, and for history no one is endowed.

Our Universities were framed for many purposes, of which the cultivation of learning was but one; in that one field, however, a particular form of learning was taken very seriously, and was pursued with admirable industry; I mean an acquaintance with and an imitation of the Latin and Greek Classics.

It was a particular character of this form of learning that proficiency in it would lead to undisputed honours. The scholar recognized the superior scholar; the field of inquiry was by convention highly limited; it had been thoroughly explored; discussion upon such results as were doubtful did not involve a difference in general philosophy.

With history it is otherwise. Whether such things have or have not happened, and, above all, if they have happened, the way in which they have happened, is to our general judgment of contemporary men what evidence is to a criminal trial. Facts won't give way. If, therefore, there are vested interests, moral or material, to be maintained, history is, of all the sciences or arts, that one most likely to suffer at the hands of those connected with such interests. Even where the truth will be of advantage to those interests, they are afraid of it, because the
thorough discussion of it will involve the presentation of views disadvantageous to privilege.

Where, as is much more commonly the case (for vested interests, moral or material, are unreasoning and selfish things), the truth would certainly offend them, they are the more determined to prevent its appearance.

But of all vested interests none deal with such assured incomes, none are so immune by influence and tradition as the Universities.

Now, if the rich man has no temptation by way of popular fame, and the poor man no opportunity for endowment, in any branch of letters, there remains but a third form of support, and that is the support of the buying public. And the public will not buy.

I will suppose the case of a popular novelist, who in a few months shall write, not an historical novel, but a piece of so-called history. He shall call it, for instance, "England's Heroes." Before you tell me his name, or what he has written, I can tell you here and now what he will write on any number of points. He will call Hastings Senlac. In the Battle of Hastings he will make out Harold to be the head of a highly patriotic nation called the "Anglo-Saxons"; they shall be desperately defending themselves against certain French-speaking Scandinavians called Normans. He will deplore the defeat, but will say it was all for the best. Magna Charta he will have signed at Runnymede--probably he will have it drawn up there as well. He will translate the most famous clause by the modern words "Judgment of his peers" and "law of the land." He will represent the Barons as having behind them the voice of the whole nation--and so forth. When he comes to Crecy he will make Edward III speak English. When he comes to Agincourt he will leave his readers as ignorant as himself upon the boundaries, numbers and power of the Burgundian faction. In the Civil War Oliver Cromwell will be an honest and not very rich gentleman of the middle-classes. The Parliamentary force will be that of the mass of the people against a few gallant but wicked aristocrats who follow the perfidious Charles. He will make no mention of the pay of the Ironsides. James II will be driven out by a popular uprising, in which the great Churchill will play an honourable and chivalric part. The loss of the American Colonies will be deplored, and will be ascribed to the folly of attempting to tax men of "Anglo-Saxon" blood, unless you grant them representation. The Continental troops will be treated as the descendants of Englishmen! The guns at Saratoga will be Colonial guns; the incapacity of the Fleet will not be touched upon. Here again, as in the case of the Battle of Hastings, all will be for the best, and there will be a few touching words upon the passionate affection now felt for Great Britain by the inhabitants of the United States. The defensive genius of Wellington will be represented as that of a general particularly great in the offensive. Talavera will be a victory. The Spanish Auxiliaries in the Peninsula will be contemptible. No guns will be abandoned before Coruna, but what are left at Coruna will be mentioned and re-embarked. The character of Nelson will receive a curious sort of glutinous praise; Emma Hamilton, not Naples, will be the stain upon his name; the Battle of Trafalgar will prevent the invasion of England.

This is a lengthy but not unjust description of what this gentleman would write; it is rubbish from beginning to end. It would sell, because every word of it would foster in the reader the illusion that the community of which he is a member is invincible under all circumstances, that effort and self-denial and suffering are spared him alone out of all mankind, and that a little pleasurable excitement, preferably that to be obtained from his favourite game, is the chief factor in military success.

I have omitted Alfred. Alfred in such a book will be the "teller of truth"--but he will not go to Mass.

Given that the name is sufficiently well known, there is hardly any limit to the sale of a book modelled upon these lines. Contrast with its fate the fate of a book, written no matter how powerfully, that should insist upon truths, no matter how valuable to the English people at the present moment. These truths need by no means be unpleasant, though at the present moment an unpleasant truth is undoubtedly more valuable than a pleasant one. They could make as much or more for the glory of the country; they could be at any rate of infinitely greater service, but they would not be received, simply because they would compel close attention and brain-work in the reader as well as in the writer of them. An established groove would have to be abandoned; to use a strong metaphor, the reader would have to get out of bed, and that is what the modern reader will not do. Tell him that the men who fought on either side at Hastings' plain cared nothing for national but everything for feudal allegiance; that _lex terrae_ means the local custom of ordeal and not the "law of the land"; tell him that judicium parium means the right of a noble to be judged by nobles, and has nothing to do with the jury system; tell him that Magna Charta was certainly drawn up before the meeting at Runnymede; that not until the Lancastrians did English kings speak English; that Oliver Cromwell owed his position to the enormous wealth of the Williamses, of whom had he not been a cadet, he would never have been known; tell him that the whole force of the Parliament resided in the squires and that the Civil Wars turned England into an oligarchy; tell him the exact truth about the infamy of Churchill; tell him what proportion of Englishmen during the American War were taxed without being represented; tell him what proportion of Washington's troops were of English blood; tell him any one illuminating and true thing about the history of his country, and the novelty will so offend him that a direct insult would have pleased him better.

What is true of history is true of nearly all the rest, and the upshot of the whole matter is that there is not, either in private patronage or in popular demand, a chance for history in modern England.

You can have excellent literature in journalism, and it will be widely read. I would say more--I would say that the better literature a newspaper admits, the more widely will that paper be read, or at any rate the greater will its influence be on modern Englishmen. But when it comes to the kneaded and wrought matter of the true Book, neither the public nor the centres of learning will have any of it, and the last medium which might make it possible, patronage, has equally disappeared, because the modern patron does not work in the daylight in the full view of the nation and with its full approbation, and he is no longer a public man (though he is richer than ever he was before). His patronage, therefore, though it is still considerable, is expended in satisfying his private demand. Private architects build him doubtful castles, private collectors get him manuscripts and jewels, but Letters, which are a public thing, he can no longer command.

It might be asked, by way of conclusion, whether there is any remedy for this state of things. There is none. Its prime cause resides in a certain attitude of the national mind, and this kind of broadly held philosophy is not changed save by slow preaching or external shock. As long as modern England remains what we know it, and follows the lines of change which we see it following, the Book will necessarily decline more and more, and we must make up our minds to it.

Of other evil tendencies of our time, one can say of some that they are obviously mending, of others that such and such an applicable remedy would mend them. Our public architecture is certainly getting better; so is our painting. Our gross and increasing contempt of self-government (to take quite another sphere) is curable by one or two simple reforms in procedure, registration, the expenses of election, and voting at the polls, which would restore the House of Commons to life, and give it power to express English will. But a regard for, a cultivation of, above all a sinking of wealth upon, English Letters is past praying for. We must wait until the tide changes; we can do nothing, and the waiting will be long.

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