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Before advancing any statements which may appear to you doubtful, I will bespeak your favourable attention by saying something which cannot be contradicted.
A man should not talk about what he does not know. That is a proposition which must be granted me. I will go on to say further—it is not the same thing—a man should speak of what he knows. When it was proposed to me to say something to you this
. evening, I wished that what I said should be about something I knew.
I think I do know something about the use of books. Not the contents of books, but the value and use of them. All men have read some books. Many have read much. There are many men who have read more books than I have. Few in this busy, energetic island in which we live can say, what I have to confess of myself, that my whole life has been passed in handling books.
The books of which we are going to speak to-night are the books of our day—modern literature, or what are commonly called " books."
So various are the contents of the many coloured volumes which solicit our attention month after month for at least nine months of the year, that it may seem an impossible thing to render any account of so many-sided a phenomenon in the short space of one lecture.
But I am not proposing to pass in review book by book, or writer by writer—that would be endless. I am not proposing to you to speak of individuals at all, I want you to take a comprehensive point of view, to consider our books en masse, as a collective phenomenon-say from such a point of view as is indicated by the questions, “Who write them? Who read them? Why do they write or read them? What is the educational or social value of the labour so expended in reading or writing ?”
Literature is a commodity, and as such it is subject to economic law. Books, like any other commodity, can only be produced by the combination of labour and capital—the labour of the author, the capital of the publisher. They would not be written unless the author laboured to write them. They could not be printed unless there was somebody ready to advance money for the paper and the work of the printing-press. The publisher, the capitalist, risks his money on a book because he expects to turn it over with a trade profit-say 12 per cent—on it. -
On the capitalist side the pro(1) A Lecture, delivered Oct. 29, 1877.
duction is purely a commercial transaction; but on the labour side, i.e. on the part of the author, it is not equally easy to state the case as one of labour motived by wages. Certainly authorship is a profession. There are authors, who are authors and nothing more—men who live by their pen, as a counsel lives by giving opinions, or a physician by prescribing for patients. But this is only partially the case with our literature. A large part of it is not paid for; the author's labour is not set in motion by wages. Many other motives come in, inducing men to address the public in print, besides the motive of wages. Disinterested enthusiasm ; youthful ardour of conviction; egotism in some one of its many forms, of ambition ; vanity, the desire to teach, to preach, to be listened to; mere restlessness of temperament; even the having nothing else te do—these things will make a man write a book quite irrespective of being paid for doing Did you
ever hear of Catherinot ? No! Well Catherinot was a French antiquary of the seventeenth century; a very learned one, if learning means to have read many books without understanding. Catherinot printed, whether at his own cost or another’s I can't say, a vast number of dissertations on matters of antiquity. David Clément, the curious bibliographer, has collected the titles of one hundred and eighty-two of those dissertations, and adds there were more of them which he had pot been able to find. Nobody wanted these dissertations of Catherinot. He wrote them and printed them for his own gratification. As the public would not take his paperasses, as Valesius called them, he had recourse to a device to force a circulation for them. There was then no penny post, so he could not, like Herman Heinfetter, post his lucubrations to all likely addresses, but he used to go round the quais in Paris, where the old bookstalls are, and, while pretending to be looking over the books, slip some of his dissertations between the volumes of the boutiquier. In this way the one hundred and eighty-two or more have come down
Catherinot is a bye-word, the typical case of scribbleomanía, — of the insanabile scribendi cacoethes — but the malady is not unknown to our time, and accounts for some of our many reams of print. And even if pure scribbleomania is not a common complaint, there
very many other motives to writing besides the avowed and legitimate motive of earning an income by the pen. Why do men make speeches to public meetings, or give lectures in public institutions? It is a great deal of trouble to do so. The motives of the labour are very various. Whatever they are, the same variety of motives urges men to write books.
Notwithstanding these exceptions, the number and importance of which must not be lost sight of in our inquiry, the general rule will still hold that books, being a commodity, are subject to the same economic laws as all commodities. That one which is of importance for us is the law of demand and supply; the law which says that
demand creates supply, and prescribes its quantity and quality. You see at once how vital to literature must be the establishment of this commercial principle as its regulator, and how radical must have been the revolution in the relation between writer and reader which was brought about when it was established. In the times when the writer was the exponent of universally received first principles, what he said might be true or might be false, might be ill or well received, but at all events he delivered his message; he spoke as one having authority, and did not shape his thoughts so as to offer what should be acceptable to his auditory. Authorship was not a trade; books were not a commodity; demand did not dictate the quality of the article supplied. In England, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the transformation of the writer from the prophet into the trading author was pretty well complete. As we trace back our civilisation to the cave man, so it is worth while casting a glance at the ancestral authorape from whom is descended the accomplished and highly-paid leader-writer of 1877, who sits for a county, and the “honour of whose company » dukes solicit. The professional author of Queen Anne's time has been delineated to us, by the master-hand of Pope, as a disreputable being, starving in a garret
high in Drury-lane," on an occasional five guineas thrown to him by the grudging charity of one of the wealthy publishers, Tonson or Lintot, or more likely Curll,“ turning a Persian tale for half-a-crown,' that he might not go to bed supperless and swearing. He was a brainless dunce without education, a sneaking scoundrel without a conscience. But you will notice that in this his mean estate, now become a hireling scribbler, he continued for long to keep up the fiction that the author was a gentleman who wrote because it pleased him so to do. When he had finished his pamphlet in defence of the present administration, a pamphlet for which he was to get Sir Robert's shabby pay, he pretended, in his preface, that he had taken up his pen
for the amusement of his leisure hours. When he had turned into rhyme Ovid's De Arte Amandi “for Curll's chaste press,” he said he was going to oblige the town with a poetical trifle. You all remember Pope's couplet
“Rhymes ere he wakes, and prints before term ends,
Obliged by hunger and request of friends." The second line ought to be read thus
“Obliged by hunger and request of friends," hunger being the real cause of the hurried publication ; "request of friends” the cause assigned, suppose on the title-page. The transformation of the teacher into the paid author was complete; but the professional author, though compelled to supply the article which was in demand, still gave himself the airs of an independent gentleman, and affected to be controlling taste instead of ministering to it.
In our own day, notwithstanding the exceptions to which I have alluded, it is now the rule that the character of general literature is determined by the taste of the reading public. It is true that any man may write what he likes, and may print it. But if he cannot get the public to buy it, his book can hardly be said to be published. At any rate, books that are not read count for nothing in that literature of the day which is the subject before us.
Let us first inquire what literature is as to its mass, before we look into its composition. And here it will simplify our subject if we divide books into two classes_literature strictly so called, and the books which are not literature.
Literature does not mean all printed matter. Blue-books and Acts of Parliament, Mrs. Beeton's Household Management, Timbs's Yearbook of Facts, Fresenius's Chemical Analysis—these are not literature. The word is not applicable to all the books in our libraries. Most books are didactic—i.e. they are intended to convey information on special subjects. Treatises on agriculture, astronomy, a dictionary of commerce, are not literary works. They are booksuseful, necessary for those who are studying agriculture, astronomy, commerce—but they do not come under the head of literature. There are books which the publishers are pleased to advertise as "gift-books,” the object of whose existence is that they may be "given ”-no doubt they answer their purpose, they are "given"and there is an end of them. I have seen an American advertising column headed “swift-selling books," the object of which books, I presume, was that they might be “sold,” like Peter Pindar's razors. When we have excluded all books which teach special subjects, all gift-books, all swift-selling books, all religious books, history and politics, those which remain are “ literature.”
I am unable to give a definition of literature. I have not met with a satisfactory one. Mr. Stopford Brooke, in a little book which I can cordially recommend to beginners—it is called A Primer of English Literature—has felt this difficulty at the outset. He says in his first page, “ By literature we mean the written thoughts and feelings of intelligent men and women arranged in a way which will give pleasure to the reader.” It would be easy to show the defects of this definition ; but, till I am prepared to propose a better, we may let this pass. Of what books the class literature consists may be better understood by setting the class in opposition to special books than by a description. Catalogues of classified libraries use the term “belles lettres" for this class of book.
When we have thus reduced the comprehension of the term “ literature" to its narrowest limits, the mass of reading soliciting our notice is still enormous overwhelming. First come the periodicals, and of periodicals first the dailies. The daily newspaper is political or commercial, mainly; but even the daily paper now, which pretends to any standing, must have its column of literature. The weekly papers are literary in a large proportion of their bulk. Our old friend the Saturday Review is literary as to a full half of its contents, and, having worked off the froth and frivolity of its froward youth, offers you for sixpence a cooperative store of literary opinion of a highly instructive character, and always worth attention. There are the exclusively literary weeklies--the Academy, the Atheneum, the Literary World—all necessary to be looked at as being integral parts of current opinion. We come to the monthlies. It is characteristic of the
It is characteristic of the eager haste of our modern Athenians to hear “some new thing,” that we cannot now wait for quarter-day. Those venerable old wooden threedeckers, the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review, still put out to sea under the command, I believe, of the Ancient Mariner, but the active warfare of opinion is conducted by the three new iron monitors, the Fortnightly, the Contemporary, and the Nineteenth Century. In these monthlies the best writers of the day vie with each other in soliciting our jaded appetites on every
our jaded appetites on every conceivable subject. Indeed, the monthly periodical seems destined to supersede books altogether. Books now are largely made up of republished review articles. Even when this is not the case, the substance of the ideas expanded in the octavo volume will generally be found to have been first put out in the magazine article of thirty pages. Hence the monthlies cannot be disposed of by slightly looking into them; they form at this moment the most characteristic and pithy part of our literary produce. It has been calculated that the insect life
upon our globe, if piled in one mass, would exceed in magnitude the heap which would be made by bringing together all the beasts and birds. For though each insect be individually minute, their collective number is enormous. So a single number of a periodical seems little compared with a book ; but then there are so many of them, and they are reproduced so fast! A newspaper seems less than it is on account of the spread of the sheet. One number of the Times, a double sheet containing 16 pages, or 96 columns, contains a quantity of printing equal to 384 pages 8vo, or an average-sized 8vo volume. Even a hard reader might find it difficult within thirty days to overtake the periodical output of the month ; and then on the first he would bave to begin all over again.
So much for periodicals; we come now to the books.
The total number of new books, not including new editions and reprints, published in Great Britain in 1876, was 2,920. In accordance with the construction I have put on the term literature, we must subtract from this total all religious, political, legal, commercial, medical, juvenile books, and all pamphlets. There will remain somewhere about 1,620 books of literature, taking the word in its widest extent. I may say, by the way, that these figures can only