By C. Kegan Paul
IT IS INTENDED TO trace in the following pages the life of a book, from its first conception in the womb of an author’s mind to its grave, that long home, unknown, often long deferred, yet which surely awaits all which is wrought by man, as well as the toiling hand and busy brain which made it. It may seem an obvious matter that no one has any business to write if he have not something definite to say, which is, or at least appears, worth saying. But this is not so. If a person have fallen into poverty, say a lady left by the death of father or husband with limited means, or a gentle-man who has failed in business, the lady is recommended to keep a school, the gentleman to take pupils, and both to write a book. The whole outfit is supposed to consist in a few quires of foolscap, a steel pen, and a bottle of ink.
Sir Walter Scott had no more, indeed he had not the steel pen, and yet how great a fortune he made and lost; Lord Macaulay’s cheque is among the curiosities of literature — it was for £20,000, and is now preserved at Messrs. Longman’s; Miss Mitford maintained her spendthrift father; round everybody is almost sure to be a certain circle, who, totally ignoring all mental qualifications, or those derived from education and experience, think their friend has only to put pen to paper in order to win fame and money.
It may be taken as an axiom, that no first books and few others are worth putting before the world which do not spring naturally from the author’s feeling that he has something to say which will benefit others to hear. That quality, called inspiration, existing in very different degrees, is always needed for the making of a true book. There are, of course, some limitations to this statement. A practised writer, long warmed by the sacred flame, may retain an after-glow, may have learned a trick of pen, which may carry him on for some time when the impulse has ceased; but even then some lighting of the brands by fire as from heaven, some kindling from a wind from without, is needful again and again, were the writer as copious as Scott, as versatile as Goethe.
But, granted this inspiration, this something which is not self, more still is needed — a liberal education. Of course here, too, are exceptions, such as the “Ettrick Shepherd,” or Bloomfield, the farmer’s boy, and Chatterton. But without asking too carefully whether the great majority of such exceptions have contributed aught really worth baying to literature, and without insisting on the fact that the great majority are lyrical poets, whose “cry” is more spontaneous and less dependent on the treasures of the past than is the work of epic and dramatic poets or prose authors, the exceptions may be admitted; yet it may be maintained that the more a man has of learning and general culture the more likely he is to write well, even on his own special subject. It is not here meant that he is to drag in illustrative quotations, than which perhaps nothing is more tiresome, but the turn of a phrase, the allusion to a character, and other indications which show an intellectual reader that he and the author are denizens of the same spiritual land, and have wandered through the same scenes, often make the whole difference between the sensations of delight and weariness. A knowledge of logic and of the rules of metaphor are also much to be desired, and of foreign languages, if an author undertake to translate, as so many do, considering it an easy task, whereas it is one of the very hardest to do well. Perhaps the most singular bundle of metaphors ever produced in writing came from a gentleman who was thoroughly acquainted with the matter which he was treating, but was not equally familiar with the rules of English composition. He wrote thus: — “ Eclecticism is like the mule in creation, essentially barren. Without foundations it soon totters to its fall, and dies as it has lived, childless and intestate.” That writer was a man, and the work was original; but the chief translators are women.
Not long since, a lady undertook a very simple translation from the German, in which Count von Moltke gave an account of the coronation of the late Emperor of Russia. She wrote, “ The archbishop poured the oil on his head, and two bishops fastened on his spurs.” The word in German is “spur,” and means a trace, and what the bishops had really done was to wipe the oil away. Another lady called the father of Cardinal Cusanus, “a mussel fisherman at Trèves,” from simple ignorance that the river is called the Mosel, and that mussels are sea fish.
LET US SUPPOSE THAT a book is written and that its author has surmounted the preliminary difficulties of want of inspiration and want of learning. We will assume it has been written on one side of the paper only, and in quarto, not in folio size; that the pages are numbered, and that they are not fastened together, a most irritating and vexatious proceeding. It is, perhaps, too much to assume that the MS. has been carefully revised, because many people put this off till, as they say, they can see it in print. Things look so different in type, they are tired of MS.; the alterations can be, at worst, but slight, and are far more easily made in proof. Now herein are several fallacies. Correcting proof, except the mere errors of the printer, is an expensive business. The estimate made for printing a book, whether given to the author or the publisher, assumes that only such corrections and a few more will be made in proof, and all else is charged extra. There never yet lived an author who was not quite sure he had corrected very little, and those who are most guilty are the most confident that they have made next to no changes. Nor is it true that all things can be best corrected in proof. When the MS. leaves the writer he has taken leave of his book as a whole. He afterwards gets it only piecemeal — he is unable to compare the beginning with the middle and the end.
However, suppose the book to exist in MS., and that it has to take its chance, first of finding favour with a publisher, next with the public. Let it be carefully remembered that not every book which has a literary has also a commercial value; and that the one is not necessarily in any degree the measure of the other. If a book is transcendently good on any subject, it will, no doubt, sooner or later, succeed; if it is bad, it will sometimes succeed because of its very badness — it may appeal to the vulgar, or the base, or the trivial. But if the writer be not a Robertson as a preacher, or a Macaulay as historian, a George Eliot as a novelist, or a Browning as poet — if he be one of the average public who has written a fairly good book, success will depend on whether the book at the moment hits the fancy of the public or supplies a want just then felt: it rarely creates the demand. Whatever it be, it will probably be carefully and kindly considered if sent to a publisher. No author need ever seek an introduction to a publisher, nor fear that a MS. will not be examined. Good authors are too rare for publishers to run the risk of passing them over, and it is quite certain that there is no respectable firm who does not give just so much attention as is its due to every MS. offered to them. There are stories, mostly fabulous, though some may have a grain of truth, of MSS. which have wandered from house to house, rejected and despised, at last accepted to the fortune of the clever publisher who discovered the author’s merits, and to the shame and confusion of face of those who refused the offered boon. But what of that? The legends, however true, would only show that publishers are not infallible, not that the MSS. were unconsidered. And the book got into print at last! The fact is, that books worth having are rarely, if ever, lost to the world; in the literary market, as well as all other markets, good wares are willingly taken and fetch their full price.
What that full price is depends on a number of causes; but it may be said that it is rarely indeed the value the author puts upon it. Suppose, for instance, that a book will cost £100 to produce, and is to sell at 6s. Says the author glibly, “A thousand copies, which are sure to sell, will realise £300, so that after the book is produced and paid for, there will remain two-thirds of that sum to divide.” “Stay,” says the publisher; “how are you to get it distributed? What is to become of the booksellers, who must make their profit? What of the review copies, without which it will not be noticed at all? What of the chances that it does not sell, and is a loss instead of a gain?” This may serve to show the marvellous kind of mistakes into which author fall when they estimate the value of their wares. There comes a happy time to some when they can in a degree fix the value aright. A successful novelist, like Mr. Trollope, or George Eliot, a successful poet, like Mr. Tennyson, does attain to know the trade value of a story or a ballad; but the experience must first be a wide and a long one, and even then the author does not always understand that his name in a magazine at a given time may be worth more than the story or the poem, which in itself, and in another magazine or at another time, might not be worth half the money.
Again, much will depend on the number of copies likely to be needed. There is a vast amount of books, good and useful, of which a very small edition, likely to satisfy the whole demand, just pays its expenses, leaving little for division. And there are certain technical books appealing to only a few, which can never, under any circumstances, pay their cost. It would be well if, on proper examination by competent persons, these were now and then subsidised by Government, as they are in other countries; but these must always be too few to need any special mention. Of ordinary ways of publishing there are several. 1. The sale of copyright. In this case the publisher takes all the risk, the author receives a lump sum down, and, as far as he is concerned, there is an (and) of the transaction. In the case of a work of but ephemeral value, such as the ordinary novel, the arrangement is good for the author, and the publisher knows, or ought to know, his business. 2. The payment by royalty. That is, that the author assigns the book to the publisher, taking, by agreement, so much on each copy sold, either from the first or after a certain reserved number of copies, or on each edition; but these modifications do not affect the principal arrangements, by which the publisher takes the risk, and the profits are divided in a definite specified manner. If the book have any permanent value, and is likely to run to edition after edition, this is by far the fairest way. For take a book, say like a scientific treatise, or a school book requiring revision from time to time, of which the author sells the copyright, and after a couple of years, on a new edition being required, a complete revision is needed. But without a further payment the author does not care to revise that on which he now has no interest; if the book sells the publisher’s temptation is great not to bring it up to the highest standard; therefore the ideally excellent arrangement is one by which both are interested in making the book always complete by fresh revisions. The system of “half profits” is misleading and unsatisfactory; it should never be employed; a definite royalty on definite copies is one on which there can be no mistake and no dispute. Or, 3, a book may be published on commission; that is, the writer bears the whole expense, the book belongs to him, the publisher taking a certain commission on the sales. If the publisher consider a book will prove a success, he would of course willingly make it his own speculation; and the fact of taking it on commission often shows that in his judgment the work has but a slender commercial value. But there may be many reasons why it should yet be brought out. And if it be the mere whim of the writer, the £100 or £200 spent upon it, some of which is sure to be returned, is of more good to the world, and of more pleasure to the writer, than would be the case did he buy a picture or a gem of the same cost, to be seen by fewer than those whom his book may instruct or amuse. Some books are alsopub-lishedon commission because the author is so confident of his work that he prefers to take for himself the risk and the profit.
“WHY SHOULD I NOT get my own estimate and print for myself?” is a common question, and the answer is manifold. A book arranged by an amateur is almost always disagreeable to the eye. The reader will often not know why a given page is so much pleasanter to read than another, when an experienced person will see at a glance that the print of one is too broad on the paper, and the breadth of a single letter would make all the difference; and there are a dozen little details of this sort which need personal attention at every turn. Nor can an amateur successfully advertise or distribute his book. Even an author of the celebrity of Mr. Ruskin has crippled his usefulness and injured his sale by attempting amateur publishing.
When all these matters are decided, a specimen page fixed, the different kinds of type decided, and so on, the printers begin their work. The MS. is given to a number of men who are arranged in a group, which is called a “companionship,” and these are, or ought to be, occupied continuously on the book till it is done. But authors give the printers trouble, if, on the other hand, it is sometimes amply repaid in kind. They will not always send all the “copy,” as it is termed, at once, when it is most important that the printers should have their whole work before them; they will not return proofs promptly, nor make their corrections at once, but send them in by driblets as second thoughts, all of which are exceeding interruptions to business. Those who have had proofs to correct have noticed on the MS. returned with them names written on the margin. This shows what portion has been allotted to each man of the group, and explains why it is important that only one side of the paper be written on, or the same sheet might have to be divided amongst two men, and paper is not yet made so thick as to enable them to split it in its thickness.
As soon as the printing is begun— usually on long strips of paper containing from one and a half to two pages of the book — begins also too often the strife as to spelling between author and printer. It has probably occurred but little to many readers what variations there can be and how different are the customs of different printers. If a writer have any wish that his own punctuation and spelling be followed, let him be quite dear that he knows his own mind, and give, in writing, the strictest orders that no alteration whatever be made. If there be any one thing a really good writer knows, it is that punctuation is simply meant to aid the reader, and there is no hard-and-fast rule for commas and semicolons. But a printer has his hard-and-fast rule, only that the rules are not uniform in different houses. So with spelling. If we left it to the printers we should, unhappily, soon cease to write English, we should write American. We should have “favor” and “honor” for “favour” and “honour;” we should “commence” instead of “begin;” we should have the vulgarity of “Did you have?” instead of “Had you?” Within the last few weeks a volume of Dr. Pusey’s sermons was sent back from the printer with his spelling in a printed volume altered on almost every page — “judgement” with an “e” to “judgment” without one; “Oh!” into “O!” and the like — simply because the pedantry of that particular office decided that its rule was better than that of one of the greatest scholars of England.
But now to come to misprints proper. The present Provost of Eton, when a tutor, had a formula which he never tired of repeating, “Never think till you are in the Sixth Form;” till then his pupils were to look out and verify each word in a dictionary. Yet he would have been the first to admit that the boy who never thought was even more hopeless; the truth lay between the two contradictions, “never think” and “ever think.” So a printer has to steer with difficulty between them, and it is hard to say which is the most trying — the man who blunders because he thinks, or the one who does so for an opposite reason. Misprints are wonderful, and are often such as seem invented by the evil one himself, there is so perverse an ingenuity about them.
Some recur after all alterations, when the printer is quite certain that he is and must be right. Victor Hugo once used the English word “varlet” in one of his plays. It came back again and again printed “valet.” M. Louis Blanc, when living in England, wrote an article in English, in which he correctly gave the French phrase, “à outrance” But since one of the commonest mistakes made by Englishmen is to use that phrase as “à l’outrance” M. Louis Blanc, in spite of all his corrections, got it finally printed wrong. How could a Frenchman possibly know better than a British workman? If this were so, where were the uses of Waterloo?
The cost of such corrections as are necessitated by blunders of the printer is charged to the printer, but all else falls on the author or publisher, as may have been arranged. Few matters connected with books are a more frequent source of disagreement than corrections; for, as the printers work by time, it is difficult to decide what minutes, or fractions of minutes, are occupied in any given change. This further may be said for those who write, that all corrections made when the book is divided into pages are more costly than when the matter is in slip.
When the book has advanced a certain stage, varying with the size of the volume, the resources of the printer, and in great measure with the type adopted, the printer will often ask for “a release” of type, that is, he will print from his forms already set up as many copies as are wanted of those sheets, and distribute the type, or take the letters apart. Then it is that the number of the book likely to sell has to be calculated, 500, 750, 1,000, or more, and whether it shall be moulded, or stereotyped. Few persons have the smallest notion of the great weight or cost of the type used in printing, say, a crown octavo book of 500 pages. In such a book, for instance, there will be nearly 25 cwt., and the cost will be over £160, exclusive of what is called furniture, chases, &c., all that is used in holding the type. When distributed the type must, of course, be set up again if a new edition be wanted, and the cost incurred de novo; and to avoid this expense, and the still vaster cost and warehouse room of keeping any large number of books standing, stereotyping, or electrotyping, which is a sort of glorified form of the first, is adopted in regard to such books as are likely to have any large sale without being changed to any great extent. The first process of this is called moulding, and in case of uncertainty this alone may be at first undertaken. The types as they stand for each page have a cast taken of them in soft yielding material,papier-maché or plaster-of-Paris, which becomes hard as it dries, just as the impression of a seal is taken in bread-crumb or wax; the stereo-plate is made by running metal into the mould, which, in the case of electro-type, is coated with a harder metal, so that there is an exact and immoveable copy or duplicate of the page of shifting type. It is, of course, just infinitesimally less sharp and clear, but it gains in stability; there is no chance of a dropped letter, such as is found now and then in the very best printed books; but with perfectly careful workmen the artistic effect of a first-rate book printed from moveable type is better than that taken from a plate. In any case the first edition is usually taken from the moveable type, the worked sheets are laid aside till joined by others, and the cast is then taken from the type before distribution.
It is, then, on these worked sheets, printed on the paper supplied for the book, instead of the rough waste on which proofs are pulled, that the quality and appearance of the type and work can be for the first time judged. It must be confessed that while a modem press can turn out a vast number of volumes with great credit, scarce any book nowadays can vie in beauty with the old Aldine books, with many printed in Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or with those printed by our English Baskerville in the last century, between the years 1756 and 1775. One reason of this is that our types are not so beautiful. In old days each type-founder was desirous of getting designs for his letters from men of real artistic feeling; nor did these disdain to design a comma, any more than they would scorn to make a beautiful leaf or flower in a picture devoted to saints or historical personages. There is a tradition that Hogarth designed Baskerville’s types, which is likely enough; at any rate, they were the last English types of originality or beauty. The best now existing are copies of copies, reproduced mechanically, which have long ceased to have the human brain infused, as it were, into the molten metal. The best existing types at this moment are French, and they, not ours, are the true descendants of Baskerville’s; for at his death in 1775 his types were sold to France, and used to print an edition of Voltaire, still well known, and most excellent in its workmanship. The modem French types of the best founts are reproduced, as it would seem, from these, but with less of exact mechanical copying and more of human variation and fancy. There could scarcely be a better work for the artistic future of books than that which might be done by some master of decorative art, like Mr. William Morris, and some great firm of type-founders in conjunction, would they design and produce some new types for our choicer printed books.
That the great bulk of the paper now made is not so good as it used to be is, I suppose, universally admitted. One reason is obvious. Far greater quantities are used every year, the best paper is made from linen rag, and there is less linen rag available since the larger wear of calico and woollen goods. Ultimately, of course, paper is now what it always was since first it was made from the fibres of the rush or papyrus. It was at first manipulated in no degree; the outer peel was stripped off the rush, and the strips were fastened together. Gradually it was discovered that the vegetable fibre, beaten and disintegrated into pulp, then allowed under certain conditions to settle into a film and dried, was better. But the more the fibres can be disintegrated the better the paper; and no process is so complete as the making it in the first place into another material, and allowing it to be worn and broken, as the completest mode of destroying its stringiness. Every kind of material has been tried, especially those on which St. Paul said it would not do to lay a foundation—“wood, hay, stubble,” the most common being the coarse form of vegetable fibre known as Esparto grass, a species of broom. In Sweden, previous to 1866, a newspaper was printed for some considerable time on a paper made from horse dung. It is not wholly fanciful that human wear and use has something to do with the excellence of paper, as with all other things of art. Mechanism is fatal to the higher and more spiritual qualities which make art. It has its great uses in cheapening and rendering plenteous much which is valuable and in a limited degree beautiful. But just as a chromolithograph is vile compared with an oil painting, just as a photograph of a picture compared with a beautiful print of it, so in exact proportion as you bring human work and human wear to bear on paper and printing you will have it, of its kind, supremely good, or only tolerable. This brings us to another reason why old paper was better than all but the best to be now procured. It was allhand-made; there was no machinery. The best paper now made, such as Whatman’s in England, or the best Dutch, which is all still made by hand, is better, or at least as good, as was ever made since the world was; but the greater part of cheap paper is bad.
So again, if we will have first-rate work in the printing of a book, it must be done by hand. Nowadays there are few printers who will or can do this well, and therefore again the Aldines and the Baskervilles are no more; the average printing is better, but the highest, except in a few cases, is not so high. This is because the exact pressure given to ensure beautiful printing can only be given by the skilled human hand. In all things where tenderness of feeling is required, machinery breaks down. In Italy and other wine countries grapes have been and are crushed by machinery, but be it never so carefully adjusted, this bruises the skins and breaks the stones, giving a rough and tart flavour to the produce; so that in all the finer qualities they have to go back to the old fashion of the days of Isaiah, when the garment of him that trod in the wine-vat were red; and of the early days of the Italian peoples when, as Macaulay said, the must foamed round the white feet of laughing girls. It cannot too often be said that machinery must crush and destroy that highest art which demands the human touch.
THE FIRST PATENT FOR making paper by machinery was taken out by one Robert, a workman attached to a paper mill at Essone, in 1798; it was set up in the following year, but proved quite unworkable from its great imperfections. M. Didot, the proprietor of the mill in which Robert was a workman, bought the patent in the following year, introduced some improvements in the original model, and came over to England to have the plans executed. The machine was first used successfully at Mr. Hall’s mill, in Hertfordshire, in 1803.
Printing by machine-press instead of hand has been introduced very gradually, but it has at last almost driven out the old art. We are not here denying the convenience and the general accuracy of machinery, nor its exclusive adaptability for the generality of books, we are simply asserting that it is not the highest nor the most artistic work for those that are truly beautiful.
The area of type upon the page will have usually determined the size of the finished book, but this is only absolutely regarded as fixed when the paper is delivered to the printer, who folds his sheet of paper so many times according to the size needed. When paper was made by hand all sheets were, as a rule, the same size; the sheet once folded making two leaves and four pages was called in-folio, or shortly folio, each leaf being a folio. These were once very common, the reason being in great measure that the size of the type required it. It is now rare, as is also the quarto, being the sheet folded into four, or eight pages. These two sizes are now rarely used, except for dictionaries, encyclopaedias, church bibles, books of reference, or those which will usually be read at a desk standing. The book folded in eight was called an octavo, and in twelve a duodecimo. Now, however, that sheets may be of various sizes, the demy octavo, roughly speaking the size known as library books, is the only one that almost precisely keeps the old size and name; and the books in most common use are known as demy octavo, large crown, or post, crown octavo, and foolscap. Smaller books, approaching to the size once called duodecimo, will so vary in shape that no special name is, or can be, attached to them.
The old theory of a book was, that if it were good enough to print it was good enough to bind, so as to preserve it permanently to be read over and over again. But since no book is sufficiently dry, nor is the type set on the paper for this purpose, it was necessary to place it in some kind of wrapper to serve a temporary end. The most elementary covering is that paper wrap, known and cursed by all purchasers of German and French books; the lightest sewing, the flimsiest cover, so that the book is in rags before it is read through. But the miraculous thing is, that Continental students not only seem willing to endure this, but, whether it is that they read their books laid flat on a table and less at the fireside than we do, they certainly tear their books less apart, and actually keep them on their shelves for years, referring to them now and again in that condition. The amazement was great with which when, on first making his acquaintance many years ago, the writer gazed on the library-shelves of that great scholar and charming writer, M. Renan, nearly all of which were filled to overflowing with books in paper covers, which, because he wanted them so often for reference, he had never had the time to send to the binders.
The old boarding of the last century, as practised amongst ourselves, was pleasant, pretty, and useful. It was simply two sheets of stiff cardboard united by a back, the sides covered with blue or grey paper, and the name of the book on a pasted label. It served its purpose till the book could be bound; it was neat and cheap, and there was no pretence that it imitated anything beyond itself. Yet it had its disadvantages; it caught the dirt easily and soon became shabby; while, unquestionably, there are many books not good enough to deserve a leather binding, which yet are worth preserving as long as we are likely to need them. Hence has sprung up what are called cloth bindings, more or less ornate, fairly inoffensive in the hands of a person of taste, but also frequent vehicles for pretension, vulgarity, and imitation. There is little to be said in reference to this matter, except that in the case of really good books, “ boards “ should always be regarded as temporary inadequate coverings. And in reference to future bindings all faces should be set, like flints, against a detestable habit lately introduced of using wire instead of thread to fasten the sheets together. When a book stitched in this fashion is sent to be really bound, the difficulty of removing the wire is so great that the book is almost sure to be torn; and moreover this again introduces into books what we should so eagerly strive to eliminate, the merely mechanical non-human labour.
READERS ARE MUCH DIVIDED on the question whether books should or should not be cut. Some people are angry with the publishers that books to be read are not issued like Bradshaw’s Guides, Bibles, Prayer Books, and the like, with cut edges. The reason is that when a volume is bound, the edges, being thrown out of the level smoothness they have acquired from the first cutting, will need a second trimming, and the margin will be sensibly reduced, so that the broad type will have a miserably inadequate setting, as though you should put a picture in a frame too narrow for it. Those who care for the future of our well-bound books, will see that there is reason on the publisher’s side for refusing to give in to the hasty American and unreasonable cry for books with cut edges. But when the paperknife is used it should be done thoroughly. Some people never cut a book humanely, they treat it, or maltreat it, as though they had a special enmity towards it. An intelligent literary man used to say, in an altogether sweeping and ungallant manner, that he would never, if he could help it, trust a woman with a book. First, he said, that if she left it on a table she invariably put it open face downwards and broke the back, and next that she never cut it well into the comers, so that as soon as it was really opened the leaves were torn. Would that these iniquities were confined to the weaker sex!
When a book worth preserving is really to be bound, the binding should be suitable, and done by a good workman. The early bindings were most costly. In the British Museum, and other great collections are to be seen covers in gold or silver, or carven wood, with bosses of precious stones, or of the metal itself wrought into special ornament on velvet or leather. But of bindings which were to be used and handled daily, the earliest fine specimens, which even now cannot be outdone, date from the first half of the sixteenth century. Many of the bindings executed for Jean Grollier are still extant, and fetch very high prices when they come into the market; they are remarkable in another way than their beauty, in showing the large and liberal spirit of the man, for they are inscribed, “Of the books of Jean Grollier and his friends.” His notion of a book was that it should be used, and indeed if books are to be valued men must be trusted with them, and allowed access even to those which are the most precious. The French school of binding still stands very high, but our best Englishmen are as good, save that they want a little looking after in the way of head-bands and small details. But whoever will have his books really cared for must learn to take in them an intelligent interest, must consult with, instruct as well as defer to, the artist, and spend at least as much pains about the clothing of his books as about that of his own person, or that of his wife and daughters.
The books, however, of which we are speaking are for the most part boarded only, and have next to be distributed to the public. This is done in three ways: by advertising, by sending them to reviews, by subscribing them to the booksellers.
As soon as the volume is ready it is shown round by a traveller to all the leading booksellers in London and the provinces, and each of these speculates in as many copies as he thinks fit, getting them at that time and in that manner on special terms. As everyone knows, we can, by paying cash, get a considerable reduction on the price of a book, amounting in many cases to 25 per cent., and since the bookseller must also make his profit, the difference between the nominal and the actual sum received for a book is very considerable. The system employed by modem booksellers, while it has no doubt cheapened books to the public, has materially changed the character of the bookselling trade. We now meet more rarely than of old the man of intelligence who knew all about the books published, and was able to advise and help his customer. He is succeeded by the man who tries especially to sell the class of book out of which he can, under the changed circumstances of the trade, get the most money; and he speculates in as few books as possible, leaving it to his customer to find out what books are in demand, and order them through him. The customer must discover the books by means of advertisements and reviews.
As a rule, if a book is good the public, review or no review, finds it out and buys it; if it be bad, no amount of praise from injudicious or foolish admirers will make it go. There is no such thing as “pushing a book,” except to put it fairly before the public, give it its opportunity, and let it take its chance. It is often said that the system of monster circulating libraries is a good thing for literature; but this may be doubted or even emphatically denied. Some thirty years ago, before the rise of these establishments, there were in every part of the country book clubs, containing from a dozen to fifty members, who chose and circulated the books from house to house. If, then, a good book of travel, or historical research, or biography were written, the publisher might feel sure that among these clubs an edition would sell, and on that security could offer good terms to the author. The book clubs have vanished, and the half-dozen monster libraries, if indeed there be so many, make less than half the number of books do among their far larger number of readers. The present system has fostered the growth and development of the second-rate novel, but it has in no degree aided literature properly so called.
SO OUR SUPPOSED BOOK is launched on its life voyage. It may perish as so many do, almost at its birth, “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung,” save perhaps by its begetter, and he sometimes, if it fail thus miserably, has the grace to be ashamed of his own abortion. But if it live in any true sense, its life may be as varied as any human existence, and like that it depends much on intrinsic character. Say it is a volume of poetry. In that case it is a miracle indeed if it attain success in life. For poetry, refined, subtle, romantic, unconcerned with the most obvious things of life, is ill-suited to make its way in a material world.
Or, the book may be a novel. How soon these die, all but a few! Some indeed are very long lived. To speak only of English books, we shall not willingly let die Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy, the great masterpieces of humour, which if now and then coarse, were so after the fashion of the time, and less harmfully than certain modem novelists are indecent behind a veil; but how are their coevals vanished! In a later day Scott remains one of the giants of all time; but where is Galt? Miss Austen lives; but where is Mrs. Brunton? And of the novels which we read when we were young, Miss Porter’s, Mrs. Gore’s, “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” as Villon sings: “Where are the snows of a year agone?”
Or in history, Grote’s Greece is alive, but where is Mitford’s? Another history of the same country, learned and painstaking, was never fully born. “And Mr. Wordy’s History of the Peninsular War, to prove that Providence was on the side of the Tories?” dead, dead; dead as the Tory party, and with less hope of revival.
To go into a library is like the wandering into some great cathedral church and looking at the monuments on the walls. Everyone there was in his or her day the pattern of all the virtues, the best father, the tenderest wife, the most devoted child. Never were such soldiers and sailors as those whose crossed swords or gallant ships are graven in marble above their tombs; every dead sovereign was virtuous as Marcus Aurelius, every bishop as blameless as Berkeley. The inscriptions are all of the kind which George IV. put on the statue of George III. at the end of the “Long Walk” at Windsor. Having embittered his father’s life while that father had mind enough to know the baseness of his son, he called him “pater optimus,” best of fathers! This same George, it may be said in a parenthesis, gave to the library of Eton School, not such a tomb of dead books as is the library of Eton College, the dead Delphin Classics, which have been well described as “the useless present of a royal rake.”
Yet those names so forgotten which meet us in the Church were not without their influence. If there be one statement more than another to be disputed among those made by Shakspere’s Mark Antony, it is—
“The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.”
It has a truth, but a less truth than that the good more often lives, and passes into other lives to be renewed and carried forward with fresh vigour in the coming age. Were it not so the human race would steadily deteriorate, weltering down into a black and brutal corruption, ever quickening, if at all, into lower forms. As it is we know that the race, with all its imperfections, “moves upward, working out the beast, and lets the ape and tiger die.” The great men stand like stars at distant intervals, individuals grander, perhaps, than ever will be again, each in his own way; but still the average level of every succeeding age is higher than that which went before it. We may never again have an Homer, Aristotle, Archimedes, St. Paul, Caesar, or Charlemagne; but in all things those great ones who forecast philosophy, or science, or mediaeval civilization bear sway over us still,—“the living are under the dominion of the dead.” Those lesser forgotten ones of whom we have spoken have carried on the torch of life in his or her own home circle, were influential even if not widely known, and have helped to make humanity what she is and will be,—our lady, our mistress, our mother, and our queen.
It is the same with literature. The shelves of a library are catacombs. There stand out among the dead who are yet alive such names, to speak only of more modern days, as Dante, Milton, Shakspere, “on whose forehead climb the crowns o’ the world. O! eyes sublime, With tears and laughter for all time”; there too are “the ingenious” Mr. This, or “the celebrated” Mr. That, now forgotten. But they too have formed the literature which is ours. Does a modern strive after originality, ten chances to one his best things have been said before him; the only true originality is to reconstruct, recast, and transmit, with just the additions enforced by the special circumstances of the time. Again: “the living are under the dominion of the dead.”
AND AS PERHAPS NO human life was ever wholly worthless, and the worst use to which you can put a man, as has been said, is to hang him, so no book is wholly worthless, and none should ever be destroyed. We have probably all had the same experience, that we have never parted with a book, however little we fancied it would be wanted again, without regretting it soon afterwards. There is a spark of good remaining in the most unvirtuous person or book.
But it is the peculiarity of books as apart from men, that while the man is enshrined once for all in one body only, a book has many duplicates; and in regard to some it may be perhaps admitted that the copies stored up in libraries are indeed enough. In the British Museum, or in the Bodleian, or in the Bibliothéque Nationale, persons may read two thousand years hence how we in the dawn of science and civilisation lived, more legibly than we can read in the relics of the lacustrine dwellings how lived our forefathers before the dawn began. They will marvel at our manners if they take some ladies’ fictions for gospel truth about us.
The remaining copies—preserve them while you can, unless indeed they be what Charles Lamb called biblia abiblia, railway novels, birthday books, and the like—will fade away, will light the fire, and wrap the parcels of generations to come. The best use is that to which many unsaleable books are put at once, they are “wasted,” that is, are sent to the mill, ground up, pulped down, and made again into paper for fresh books and newer readers.
We have not been unmindful of the spiritual nature of books while we have dwelt especially on their material fabric, nor forgotten that, by books alone, we come to know intimately the mind of the mighty dead or of the living writer. Did even Mr. Bethell, who was his Eton tutor, or Provost Hawtrey, who was in his form, and thought him a very commonplace boy, did Byron, or Medway, or Trelawney, know Shelley as we may know him? The muddy vesture of decay was about him, and veiled his pure spirit; we see him in his books as he was. Did Anne Hathaway, the wife who lay in Shakspere’s bosom, know how divine was the intellect which informed that tenement of clay; did even the friend of the sonnets? We, not Hamnet who died young, nor Susanna and Judith, who survived their father, are Shakspere’s true children.
The substance of this article was delivered as a Lecture at the Albert Institute, Windsor, and was originally published in the Fortnightly Review, No. CXCVI Vol XXXIII, 1 April 1883. ‘The Production and Life of Books’ has been manually transcribed for the New Series, with minor non-textual elements included to track subsequent usage. This version is protected by current copyright.