Monday, August 28, 2006

Arnold Bennett as Edwardian QVC presenter

I think it will be agreed the cost of this library is surprisingly small. By laying out the sum of sixpence a day for three years you may become the possessor of a collection of books which, for range and completeness in all its branches of literature, will bear comparison with libraries far more imposing, more numerous, and more expensive.

Send no money now. Return within 90 days for a full refund.

This is Literary Taste: How to Form It, published by Bennett in 1909. It has gone through seven editions by my copy, dated February 1914. It suggests that, quite apart from his novels, Bennett could have made a fortune writing self-help books or flogging Chambers' Cyclopedia of English Litearature door to door.

On the one hand, he is too scrupulous to suggest a single path. His first warning is: "People who regard literary taste simple as an accomplishment, and literature simply as a distraction, will never truly succeed either in acquiring the accomplishment or in using it half-acquired as a distraction". His first advice is: "Buy! Surround yourself with volumes, as handsome as you can afford. And for reading, all that I will now particularly enjoin is a general and inclusive tasting, in order to attain a sort of familiarity with the look of 'literature in all its branches'." He takes pleasure, extracted with effort from acknowledged classics, as his guiding pedagogical principle.

On the other hand, he is too canny to pass up the sales potential of "DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS FOR COLLECTING A COMPLETE LIBRARY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE". The justification is peremptory: "I began by urging the constant purchase of books -- any books of approved quality, without reference to their immediate bearing upon your particular case. The moment has come to inform you plainly that a bookman is, amongst other things, a man who possesses many books. A man who does not possess many books is not a bookman."

With the help of a tame retailer, "my old and valued friend, Charles Young, head of the firm of Lambley & Co., booksellers, South Kensington", he compiles "a library containing the complete works of the supreme geniuses, representative important works of all the first-class men in all departments, and specimen works of all the men of second rank whose reputation is really a living reputation to-day", specifying editions and prices. It runs from Chaucer (and a little before) to George Gissing, excluding translations and works not in English. For 337 volumes, the cost is £26 14s 7d, of which £14 17s 7d is the copyright-heavy 19th Century. "I am fairly sure," he says, "that the majority of people will be startled at the total inexpensiveness of it."

£26 14s 7d comes out at about £1,800 in today's money using the RPI inflation calculator at; and many of his volumes are one-shilling Everymans, for which you might struggle to find an equivalent at £3.50 today. Dover Thrift and Wordsworth Editions could take you some way, I suppose.

I love Bennett's tone -- intimate, clairvoyant and stern -- although there's every chance another reader would want to throttle him. He's your friend; he knows what you're thinking; and he can fix it. And I take some comfort, decline-of-literary-culture-wise, in his description of the crapness of the market for poetry in his time. "If the sales of modern poetry, distinctly labelled as such, were to cease entirely to-morrow not a publisher would fail; scarcely a publisher would be affected; and not a poet would die -- for I do not belive that a single modern English poet is living to-day on the current proceeds of his verse."

Given more enterprise I'd work through the list -- two volumes a week for three years, I'm fairly sure that most people will be startled at the total unambitiousness -- but enterprise is not something you'll find much of around here.

Literary Taste is available as a Project Gutenberg e-text.

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