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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - The Potential Public Post by :Funky Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2778

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - The Potential Public

(_18 Feb. '09_)

I want to dig a little deeper through the strata of the public. Below the actual fiction-reading public which I have described there is a much vaster potential public. It exists in London, and it exists also in the provinces. I will describe it as I have found it in the industrial midlands and north. Should the picture seem black, let me say that my picture of a similar public in London would be even blacker. In all essential qualities I consider the lower middle-class which regards, say, Manchester as its centre, to be superior to the lower middle-class which regards Charing Cross as its centre.

* * * * *

All around Manchester there are groups of municipalities which lie so close to one another that each group makes one town. Take a medium group comprising a quarter of a million inhabitants, with units ranging from sixty down to sixteen thousand. I am not going to darken my picture with a background of the manual workers, the immense majority of whom never read anything that costs more than a penny--unless it be "Gale's Special." I will deal only with the comparatively enlightened crust--employers, clerks, officials, and professional men, and their families--which has formed on the top of the mass, with an average income of possibly two hundred per annum per family. This crust is the elite of the group. It represents its highest culture, and in bulk it is the "lower middle-class" of Tory journalism. In London some of the glitter of the class above it is rubbed on to it by contact. One is apt to think that because there are bookshops in the Strand and large circulating libraries in Oxford Street, and these thoroughfares are thronged with the lower middle-class, therefore the lower middle-class buys or hires books. In my industrial group the institutions and machinery perfected by the upper class for itself do not exist at all, and one may watch the lower without danger of being led to false conclusions by the accidental propinquity of phenomena that have really nothing whatever to do with it.

* * * * *

Now in my group of a quarter of a million souls there is not a single shop devoted wholly or principally to the sale of books. Not one. You might discover a shop specializing in elephants or radium; but a real bookshop does not exist. In a town of forty thousand inhabitants there will be a couple of stationers, whose chief pride is that they are "steam printers" or lithographers. Enter their shops, and you will see a few books. Tennyson in gilt. Volumes of the Temple Classics or Everyman. Hymn-books, Bibles. The latest cheap Shakespeare. Of new books no example except the brothers Hocking. The stationer will tell you that there is no demand for books; but that he can procure anything you specially want by return of post. He will also tell you that on the whole he makes no profit out of books; what trifle he captures on his meagre sales he loses on books unsold. He may inform you that his rival has entirely ceased to stock books of any sort, and that he alone stands for letters in the midst of forty thousand people. In a town of sixty thousand there will be a largeish stationer's with a small separate book department. Contents similar to the other shop, with a fair selection of cheap reprints, and half a dozen of the most notorious new novels, such as novels by Marie Corelli, Max Pemberton, Mrs. Humphry Ward. That is all. Both the shops described will have two or three regular book-buying clients, not more than ten in a total of a hundred thousand. These ten are book-lovers. They follow the book lists. They buy to the limit of their purses. And in the cult of literature they keep themselves quite apart from the society of the town, despising it. The town is simply aware that they are "great readers."

* * * * *

Another agency for the radiation of light in the average town first mentioned is the Municipal Free Library. The yearly sum spent on it is entirely inadequate to keep it up to date. A fraction of its activity is beneficial, as much to the artisan as to members of the crust. But the chief result of the penny-in-the-pound rate is to supply women old and young with outmoded, viciously respectable, viciously sentimental fiction. A few new novels get into the Library every year. They must, however, be "innocuous," that is to say, devoid of original ideas. This, of course, is inevitable in an institution presided over by a committee which has infinitely less personal interest in books than in politics or the price of coal. No Municipal Library can hope to be nearer than twenty-five years to date. Go into the average good home of the crust, in the quietude of "after-tea," and you will see a youthful miss sitting over something by Charlotte M. Yonge or Charles Kingsley. And that something is repulsively foul, greasy, sticky, black. Remember that it reaches from thirty to a hundred such good homes every year. Can you wonder that it should carry deposits of jam, egg, butter, coffee, and personal dirt? You cannot. But you are entitled to wonder why the Municipal Sanitary Inspector does not inspect it and order it to be destroyed.... That youthful miss in torpidity over that palimpsest of filth is what the Free Library has to show as the justification of its existence. I know what I am talking about.

* * * * *

A third agency is the book-pedlar. There are firms of publishers who never advertise in any literary weekly or any daily, who never publish anything new, and who may possibly be unknown to Simpkins themselves. They issue badly printed, badly bound, showy editions of the eternal Scott and the eternal Dickens, in many glittering volumes with scores of bleared illustrations, and they will sell them up and down the provinces by means of respectably dressed "commission agents," at prices much in excess of their value, to an ingenuous, ignorant public that has never heard of Dent and Routledge. The books are found in houses where the sole function of literature is to flatter the eye. The ability of these subterranean firms to dispose of deplorable editions to persons who do not want them is in itself a sharp criticism of the commercial organization of the more respectable trade.

* * * * *

Let it not be supposed that my group is utterly cut off from the newest developments in imaginative prose literature. No! What the bookseller, the book-pedlar, and the Free Library have failed to do, has been accomplished by Mr. Jesse Boot, incidentally benefactor of the British provinces and the brain of a large firm of chemists and druggists with branches in scores, hundreds, of towns. He has several branches in my group. Each branch has a circulating library, patronized by the class which has only heard of Mudie, and has not heard of the Grosvenor. Mr. Jesse Boot has had the singular and beautiful idea of advertising his wares by lending books to customers and non-customers at a loss of ten thousand a year. His system is simplicity and it is cheapness. He is generous. If you desire a book which he has not got in stock he will buy it and lend it to you for twopence. Thus in the towns of my group the effulgent centre of culture is the chemist's shop. The sole point of contact with living literature is the chemist's shop. A wonderful world, this England! Two things have principally struck me about Mr. Jesse Boot's (Now Sir Jesse Boot) clients. One is that they are usually women, and the other is that they hire their books at haphazard, nearly in the dark, with no previous knowledge of what is good and what is bad.

* * * * *

It is to be added that the tremendous supply of sevenpenny bound volumes of modern fiction, and of shilling bound volumes of modern belles-lettres (issued by Nelsons and others), is producing a demand in my group, is, in fact, making book-buyers where previously there were no book-buyers. These tomes now rival the works of the brothers Hocking in the stationer's shop. Their standard is decidedly above the average, owing largely to the fact that the guide-in-chief of Messrs. Nelsons happens to be a genuine man of letters. I am told that Messrs. Nelsons alone sell twenty thousand volumes a week. Yet even they have but scratched the crust. The crust is still only the raw material of a new book public.

* * * * *

If it is cultivated and manufactured with skill it will surpass immeasurably in quantity, and quite appreciably in quality, the actual book public. One may say that the inception of the process has been passably good. One is inclined to prophesy that within a moderately short period--say a dozen years--the centre of gravity of the book market will be rudely shifted. But the event is not yet.

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