A Joy For Ever/Note 6

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Note 6th, p. 74.—"Economy of literature."

140. I have been much impressed lately by one of the results of the quantity of our books; namely, the stern impossibility of getting anything understood, that required patience to understand. I observe always, in the case of my own writings, that if ever I state anything which has cost me any trouble to ascertain, and which, therefore, will probably require a minute or two of reflection from the reader before it can be accepted,—that statement will not only be misunderstood, but in all probability taken to mean something very nearly the reverse of what it does mean. Now, whatever faults there may be in my modes of expression, I know that the words I use will always be found, by Johnson's dictionary, to bear, first of all, the sense I use them in; and that the sentences, whether awkwardly turned or not, will, by the ordinary rules of grammar, bear no other interpretation than that I mean them to bear; so that the misunderstanding of them must result, ultimately, from the mere fact that their matter sometimes requires a little patience. And I see the same kind of misinterpretation put on the words of other writers, whenever they require the same kind of thought.

141. I was at first a little despondent about this; but, on the whole, I believe it will have a good effect upon our literature for some time to come; and then, perhaps, the public may recover its patience again. For certainly it is excellent discipline for an author to feel that he must say all he has to say in the fewest possible words, or his reader is sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words, or his reader will certainly misunderstand them. Generally, also, a downright fact may be told in a plain way; and we want downright facts at present more than anything else. And though I often hear moral people complaining of the bad effects of want of thought, for my part, it seems to me that one of the worst diseases to which the human creature is liable is its disease of thinking. If it would only just look[1] at a thing instead of thinking what it must be like, or do a thing instead of thinking it cannot be done, we should all get on far better.


  1. There can be no question, however, of the mischievous tendency of the hurry of the present day, in the way people undertake this very looking. I gave three years' close and incessant labour to the examination of the chronology of the architecture of Venice; two long winters being wholly spent in the drawing of details on the spot; and yet I see constantly that architects who pass three or four days in a gondola going up and down the Grand Canal, think that their first impressions are just as likely to be true as my patiently wrought conclusions. Mr. Street, for instance, glances hastily at the façade of the Ducal Palace—so hastily that he does not even see what its pattern is, and misses the alternation of red and black in the centres of its squares—and yet he instantly ventures on an opinion on the chronology of its capitals, which is one of the most complicated and difficult subjects in the whole range of Gothic archæology. It may, nevertheless, be ascertained with very fair probability of correctness by any person who will give a month's hard work to it, but it can be ascertained no otherwise.