Compromises/Our Belief in Books

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OUR BELIEF IN BOOKS

What pleasantness of teaching there is in books,—how easy, how secret! How safely we lay bare the poverty of human ignorance to books, without feeling any shame! They are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule, without angry words, without clothes or money. If you come to them, they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them, they do not withdraw themselves; they do not chide if you make mistakes; they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant. O books, who alone are liberal and free, who give to all who ask of you, and enfranchise all who serve you faithfully.—Richard De Bury, Bishop of Durham, A. D. 1459.

Enough has been written in praise of books to fill a library. It is not always so eloquently worded as is the Bishop of Durham's benediction; but the same general truths—or fallacies—are repeated with more or less pride and persuasiveness. At the same time, a lesser library might be compiled of the warnings uttered by the anxious ones who hold that the power of books is more potent than benign, and that if one half of the world's readers are being led gloriously to high and noble truths, the other half is being vitiated by an influence which makes for paltriness and degradation. Under all circumstances, we are asked to believe that we are dominated by the printed page. It is this conviction which induces so much of austerity—not to say of censoriousness—in our counsellors, whose upbraidings are but the echoes of those sterner protests with which church and state were wont in earlier days to direct the reading courses of the public. That books have always been deemed formidable antagonists is proven by their frequent condemnation. The fires that were kindled for sorcerers and for heretics flamed just as fiercely for the stubborn volumes which passed the border-land of orthodoxy. Calvin burned all the pamphlets and manuscripts of Servetus at the same time that he burned their author; in consequence of which thoroughness, "Christianismi Restitutio" is said to be one of the rarest dissertations in the world.

For some books that perished at the stake the antiquarian can never mourn enough. An act passed in the short reign of King Edward VI commanded the wholesale destruction of all "antiphones, myssales, scrayles, processionales, manuelles, legendes, pyes, prymars in Lattyn or Inglishe, cowchers, journales, ordinales, or other books or writings whatsoever, heretofore used for the service of the churche, written or prynted in the Inglishe or Lattyn tongue." Owners of these precious volumes were commanded to give them up (heavy fines being exacted for disobedience), that they might be "openlye brent, or otherways defaced and destroied." None were spared, save the "Prymars in the Inglishe or Lattyn tongue set forthe by the late Kinge of famous memorie, Kinge Henrie the eight;" and even from such hallowed pages all "invocations or prayers to saintes" were to be "blotted or clerelye put out." Orthodoxy is a costly indulgence. What treasures were lost to the world, what—

Small rare volumes, dark with tarnished gold,

shrivelled into ashes, that the Book of Common Prayer might rule in undisputed authority and right!

Queen Elizabeth was strenuously opposed to "schismatical" works, as well as to those of a political or diplomatic character. With broad-minded impartiality she burned all books and pamphlets which presumed to deal—no matter in what spirit—with subjects she did not wish discussed. Like the old Tory lady who objected to her Tory butler's sentiments, seeing no reason why butlers should have sentiments at all, Elizabeth punished the too effusive piety and patriotism of her subjects as severely as she punished their discontent. The hall kitchen of the Stationers' Company witnessed many a bonfire of books during her reign; and many an incautious author discovered with poor Peter Wentworth that "the anger of a Prince is as the roaring of a Lyon, and even as the messenger of Death." James I favoured St. Paul's churchyard as a spot singularly suitable for the cremation of books; and Oxford and Cambridge had their own exclusive auto-da-fés for two centuries and more. Edinburgh, with fine national feeling, burned Drake's "Historia Anglo-Scotica," because its English tone offended Scottish pride; and England burned the Rev. Arthur Bury's "Naked Gospel" in 1690, because she conceived that a rector of Exeter should veil his truths more decently from the eyes of the feeble and profane. The last book to achieve such unmerited distinction in Great Britain was a copy of Mr. Froude's "Nemesis of Faith," which, being discovered in the possession of an Oxford student, was publicly burned by the Rev. William Sewell, Dean of Exeter, in the college hall, on the twenty-seventh of February, 1849. "Oxford," says Mr. James Anson Farrer, "has always tempered her love for learning with a dislike for inquiry." The incident, being at best unusual, gave such a healthy impetus to the sale of Mr. Froude's work—which had won no wide hearing—that it went into a second edition, and became an object of keen, though temporary, solicitude. Well might the Marquis de Langle say that burning was as a blue ribbon to any book, inspiring interest, and insuring sales. There are those who affirm that the "Index Expurgatorius," by which the Roman Catholic church still seeks to restrain the reading of her children, is a similar spur to curiosity. This I do not believe, having never in my life met a Roman Catholic who knew what works were or were not upon the "Index," or who had been incautious enough to inquire.

The decline of church discipline and the enfeeblement of law permit books now to die a natural death; but the conviction of their powerful and perilous authority still lingers in the teacher's heart. If he knows, as is often the case, much of letters and little of life, he magnifies this authority until it seems the dominant influence of the world. A writer in one of the British quarterlies assures us with almost incredible seriousness that we are at the mercy of the authors whom we read.

"We take a silent, innocent-seeming volume into our hands, and, when we put it down, we shall never again be what we were before. … St. Augustine opened the book, and one single sentence changed him from the brilliant, godless, self-satisfied rhetorician into a powerful religious force. Here, on the other hand, is a youth who opens a mere magazine article written against his faith. He throws off the early influence of home like a mantle, and plunges thenceforward into the 'sunless gulf of doubt,' with the unspeakable morasses at the bottom."

This is a little like the man who left the Unitarian church because "somebody told him it wasn't true." How is a soul so sensitive to be kept in—or out of—any fold? A religion which dissolves before the persuasions of a magazine article must necessarily be as short-lived as the love—"the slight, thin sort of inclination"—which is starved, so Elizabeth Bennett tells us, by a sonnet. "Ten thousand difficulties," says Cardinal Newman nobly, "do not make one doubt;" but the thinker who cannot surmount the first and feeblest of the difficulties should never have essayed the perilous pathway of the alphabet. Neither was St. Augustine's inspiration a flashlight upon darkness. The "self-satisfied rhetorician" was not converted, like Harlequin, in one dazzling moment. There had been a long and bitter struggle between the forces of life and death, of the spirit and the flesh, before the word of St. Paul penetrated with overwhelming sweetness into a soul cleared by hard thinking, and cleansed by a passion for perfection.

Man may be an unstable creature,—we have been told so until we believe it,—but he parts reluctantly from his convictions, and is slow to break the habits of a lifetime. Hear what Robert Burton has to say about the obstinate perversity of heretics.

"Single out the most ignorant of them. Convince his understanding. Show him his errors. Prove to him the grossness and absurdities of his sect. He will not be persuaded."

He will not, indeed, whether persuasion take the form of a sermon, a magazine article, or the stake. Luther said that the more he read the Fathers of the early Church, the more he found himself offended; which proves the strength of a mental attitude to resist the most penetrating of influences. Neither are political heretics any easier to enlighten. "Who," asks Lord Coleridge, "ever convinced an antagonist by a speech?" On the contrary, there is a natural and healthy sentiment of revolt when views we do not share are set forth with unbroken continuity and insistence. In the give and take of conversation, in the advance and retreat of argument, in the swift intrusion of the spoken word, made overpowering by the charm of personality, we encounter a force too subtle and personal to be resisted. Unconsciously we yield at some point to the insidious attack of thoughts and ideas so presented as to weaken our individual opposition, and adroitly force an entrance to our souls. But books, like sermons, fail by reason of the smoothness of their current; because there is no backwater to stir the eddies, and whirl us into conflict and submission. We feel that, could we have spent our "mornings in Florence" with Mr. Ruskin, have looked with him at frescoes, tombs, and pavements, and have disputed at every point his magnificent assumption of authority, we might have ended by accepting his most unreasonable and intolerant verdicts. Could we free our souls by expressing to Mr. John Morley our sentiments concerning Mr. Gladstone, we might in return be impelled to share the enthusiasm of the enlightened biographer. But neither Mr. Ruskin nor Mr. Morley has the same power of persuasiveness in print. The simple process of leaving out whatever is antagonistic makes demonstration easy, but inconclusive. Sometimes the robust directness of the method inclines us peremptorily to resistance. It is hard for a generous heart not to sympathize with the exiled Stewarts, after reading Lord Macaulay's "History of England." Mr. Froude must be held responsible for much of the extravagant enthusiasm professed for the Queen of Scots. And I once knew an intelligent girl who had been driven by Mr. Prescott into worshipping Philip II as a hero.

People who have contracted the habit of writing books are naturally prone to exaggerate their importance. It is this sentiment which has provoked the attitude of fault-finding, of continuous grumbling at readers, which is so marked a characteristic of modern criticism. The public is reproached, admonished, warned by Mr. Frederic Harrison that if it feels contumacious—which is not infrequently the case—it should pray for a "cleanlier and quieter spirit." Whenever a handful of books is presented to a community, addresses are made to show, on the one hand, that reading and writing are better than meat and drink, and, on the other, that the people who read and write are on the brink of abysmal destruction. I have heard a lecturer upon one of these august occasions gloomily prophesy that many of the volumes waiting to be perused would "deprave the taste, irritate the vanity, exaggerate the egotism, and vitiate the curiosity of their readers." This seemed an unfortunate result for philanthropy to achieve; but the speaker went on to excite the godless interest of his audience by warning them that romance—of which the new library was reasonably full—would exercise a "bewildering and blinding effect" upon their minds, "filling them with false hopes and enervating dreams." He then defined a good novel as one which should "stimulate a healthy imagination, a sober ambition, a modest ardour, an eager humility, a love of what is truly great;" and left us oppressed with the conviction that the usefulness of our earthly careers and the salvation of our immortal souls depended upon the fiction that we read.

"There is no harm," says Mr. Birrell sweetly, "in talking about books, still less in reading them; but it is folly to pretend to worship them." It is folly to exaggerate their controlling influence in our lives. We are not more modestly ardent after reading "Vanity Fair," nor more eagerly humble after spending long and happy hours with "Emma." No sober ambition stirs chastely in our souls when we lay down, with a sigh of content, "Pride and Prejudice," or "Guy Mannering," or "Henry Esmond," or "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel." Even "Anna Karénina" fails to inspire us with "false hopes and enervating dreams;" and while we are often bewildered by Mr. Henry James's masterpieces, we have never been blinded by any. As for the ordinary novels that tumble headlong from the press, it is impossible to imagine them as inspiring either ardour or ambition, egotism or humility. They may perhaps be trusted to weaken our literary instincts, and to induce mental inertia,—"the surest way of having no thoughts of our own," says Schopenhauer, "is to take up a book every time we have nothing to do,"—but they are not, as their writers and their critics fearfully assert, the arbiters of our destinies.

A belief in the overpowering influence of books was part of Carlyle's gospel. He had a curious modesty about giving advice, even when it was sought; and—born dictator though he was—he realized that his own literary needs were not necessarily the literary needs of other men. He said as much quite simply and sincerely when people asked him what they should read, holding always, with Dr. Johnson, that inclination must prompt the choice. To be sure, like Dr. Johnson, and like Emerson, he presupposed inclination to be of an austere and seemly order. Emerson never wearied of saying that people should read what they liked; but he plainly expected them to like only what was good. Carlyle was firmly convinced that authorship carried with it responsibilities too serious for trifling. He reverenced the printed page, and he expressed this reverence, this confession of faith, in the most explicit and comprehensive assertion.

"The writer of a book is he not a preacher, preaching, not to this parish or that, but to all men in all times and places? Not the wretchedest circulating library novel which foolish girls thumb and con in remote villages, but will help to regulate the actual practical weddings and households of those foolish girls."

More than this it would be impossible to say, and few of us, I hope, would be willing to say as much. The idea is too oppressive to be borne. Only authors and critics can afford to take this view of life. Personally I believe that a foolish girl is more influenced by another foolish girl, to say nothing of a foolish boy, than by all the novels on the library shelves. Companionship and propinquity are forces to be reckoned with. Mind touches mind like an electric current. The contagion of folly is spread, like other forms of contagion, by personal contact. Books may, as Carlyle says, preach to all men, in all times and places; but it is precisely their lack of reticence, the universality of their message, their chill publicity of tone which reduces their readers to the level of an audience or of a congregation. If we recall the disclosures with which we have been favoured from time to time by distinguished people who consented to tell the world what books had influenced their lives, we cannot fail to remember the perfunctory nature of these revelations. It was as though the speakers had first marshalled in order the most enduring masterpieces of literature, and had then fitted their own sentiments and experiences into appropriate grooves. This reversal of a natural law is much in favour when what are called epoch-making books come under public discussion. There are enthusiasts who appear to think that Rousseau evoked the French Revolution, and that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was responsible for the Civil War. When the impetus of a profound and powerful emotion, the mighty will of a great event finds expression in literature,—or at least in letters,—the writer's mind speeds like a greyhound along the track of public sentiment. It does not create the sentiment, it does not appreciably intensify it; but it enables people to perceive more clearly the nature of the course to which they stand committed. These sympathetic triumphs are sometimes mistaken for literary triumphs. They are often thought to lead the chase they follow.

If, on the other hand, we ask ourselves soberly what books have helped to mould our characters or to control our energies, we shall not find the list an imposing one. There will be little or nothing to tell a listening world. Rather may we incline to the open skepticism of Lord Byron: "Who was ever altered by a poem?" Even presuming that we are happy enough to detach ourselves from contemporary criticism, and to read for human delight; even presuming that, after a lifetime of effort, we have learned to recognize perfection in literary art, and to turn of our own free will to those lonely works which "in the best and noblest sense of a good and noble word, should be, and forever remain, essentially unpopular;" even then it does not follow that we are mastered by the books we love. There still remains to us that painful and unconquerable originality, which is not defiant, but only helplessly incapable of submission. "Giving a reason for a thing," says Dr. Johnson, "does not make it right." Let us hope that being unable to give a reason for a thing does not prove us wrong. The Rev. Mark Pattison, who was the most unflinching reader of his day, who looked upon money only as a substance convertible by some happy alchemy into leather-bound volumes, and upon time only as a possession which could be exchanged for a wider acquaintance with literature, understood better than any scholar in England the limitations and futilities of print. He did not say with Hobbes, "If I had read as much as other men, I should doubtless have shared their ignorance," because he had read more than other men, and was very widely informed; but he pointed out with startling lucidity that a flexible mind fortifies itself rather by conversation, which is the gift of the few, than by reading, which is the resource of the many. "Books," he said, "are written in response to a demand for recreation by minds roused to intelligence, but not to intellectual activity." There is something pathetic in his frankly envious admiration of the French, who can and do convey their thoughts to one another in a language wrought up to be "the perfect medium of wit and wisdom,—the wisdom of the serpent,—the incisive medium of the practical intelligence." He quoted with melancholy appreciation Lord Houghton's story of the Italian who, after submitting to the heavy hospitality of an English country-house, drew a newly arrived Frenchman into a corner with the eager request: "Viens done causer. Je n'ai pas causé pour quinze jours."

Mr. Lang is responsible for the statement—spoken, let us hope, in the enjoyment of a sardonic mood rather than after dispassionate observation—that the average Englishman or Englishwoman would as soon think of buying a boa-constrictor as buying a book. He or she depends for intellectual sustenance upon that happy lottery system which has been devised by circulating libraries, and with which Americans are so well acquainted,—a system which enables us to put in a request for Darwin's "Origin of Species," and draw out the Rev. W. Profeit's "Creation of Matter;" to put in a request for "Lady Rose's Daughter," and draw out "The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come." It is evident that reading conducted on this basis is as sure a path to cultivation as a roulette table is to wealth. It has all the charm of uncertainty, and all the value of speculation. It eliminates selection, detaches quantity from quality, and replaces the elusive balancing of results by the unchallenged roll-call of statistics. It expresses that unshaken belief which is the gospel of the librarian,—namely, that the number of books taken from his shelves within a given time has something to do with the educational efficiency of his library.

Our power of self-deception—without which we should shrivel into humility—is never so comfortable nor so resourceful as in the matter of reading. We are capable of believing, not only that we love books which we do not love, but that we have read books which we have not read. A life-long intimacy with their titles, a partial acquaintance with modern criticism, a lively recollection of many familiar quotations,—these things come in time to be mistaken for a knowledge of the books themselves. Perhaps in youth it was our ambitious purpose to storm certain bulwarks of literature, but we were deterred by their unpardonable length. It is a melancholy truth, which may as well be acknowledged in the start, that many of the books best worth reading are very, very long, and that they cannot, without mortal hurt, be shortened. Nothing less than shipwreck on a desert island in company with Froissart's "Chronicles" would give us leisure to peruse this glorious narrative, and it is useless to hope for such a happy combination of chances. We might indeed be wrecked,—that is always a possibility,—but the volume saved dripping from the deep would be "Soldiers of Fortune," or "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch."

It is at least curious that if people love books—as we are perpetually assured they do—they should need so much persuasion to read them. Societies are formed for mutual encouragement and support in this engaging but arduous pursuit. Optimistic counsellors cheer a shrinking public to its task by recommending minute quantities of intellectual nourishment to be taken twenty-four hours apart. They urge us to read something "solid" for fifteen minutes a day, until we get used to it, and they promise us that—mental invalids though we be—we can assimilate great masterpieces in doses so homœopathic that we need hardly know we are taking them. But this is not the spirit in which we pursue other pleasures. We do not make an earnest effort to enjoy our friends by admitting one for fifteen minutes' conversation every morning. If we like a thing at all, we are apt to like a good deal of it; and if we are working con amore, we are wont to work very hard. To turn to books, as Jeremy Collier counsels us, when we are weary alike of solitude and companionship, to value them, as he did, because they help us to forget "the crossness of men and things," is to pay a sincere, but not an ardent, tribute to their worth. Even the Bishop of Durham praised his library, which he truly loved, because it soothed his unquiet soul. The friendly volumes forbore, as he gratefully noted, either to chide his errors or to mock at his ignorance; and there were contemporaries—like Petrarch—who affirmed that, for so ardent a bibliophile, the good Bishop had no great store of learning. His words echo pleasantly through the centuries, breathing the secret of quiet hours stolen from stormy times; and we repeat them, wondering less at their eloquence than at their moderation. "O books, who alone are liberal and free, who give to all who ask of you, and enfranchise all who serve you faithfully."