Monday, 9 September 2013

Improving Books for Busy People

I've received something rather lovely in the post today, from Barry MacKay Rare Books (specialising in print history, culture, bibliography, typography, book making and other exciting things: and he has a sale on).

For the princely sum of £5, I got this elegant volume published in 1891, A Guide Book To Books, edited by Sargant and Whishaw:

The contributors feature 12 women (6 Mrs, 5 Miss and a Mademoiselle Souvestre) and 169 men (116 riff-raff Misters: Consul Generals and the like; 1 Captain, 1 Rear-Admiral, 2 Colonels and a Lt. Colonel; 2 Professors, 3 Right Reverends, 13 Very Reverends, 8 Reverends, one Venerable, 2 Doctors, 6 Honourables and 13 assorted Knights and Baronets). 

The book itself is a fascinating example of a genre that hasn't gone away: a guide to what's good for you. The invention of the printing press led to a flood of books, some of which were not exactly Improving or Moral. Many readers wanted to educate themselves or – which isn't the same thing – appear well-read and socially advanced. So up popped a flood of instructional guides for everyone from Gentlemen and Ladies to pushy proletarians. X for Dummies wasn't the first and won't be the last because insecurity will always abound. 

This particular example is fascinating. Obviously it's weighted towards polite, Establishment opinion, and authority is key: they can tell you what's good and what isn't, with no shilly-shallying around postmodern concepts such as 'regimes of truth' or 'knowledges', as the extract below tells you. 

Its authors know that the reader is pushed for time and ill-equipped for differentiating between good, bad and indifferent, and so provides this shortcut. Perhaps they have in mind, too, the landed gentleman or Captain of Industry who understands that his mansion must have a library but reads little beyond Country Life, Punch and the form-guide. 

It's a quixotic little volume. Take 'T' for example. There are only 6 subjects worth knowing about under that letter of the alphabet (and 'tea' isn't one of them):

Clearly the Victorian Gent is meant to have some sporting prowess, a little technical knowledge, some awareness of Foreigners with whom one is likely to be at war before long, particularly the Turkish Mussulman, and a good deal of theology (with which to biff the aforesaid Mussulman, Catholics etc. etc.). Sports are indicators of class of course: many more books are recommended on the subjects of Falconry and Fencing than Football, which in any case refers to rugby more than the 'Association Game' played by the plebs. 

When it comes to Culture, the Guide Book is surprisingly for it… as long as the Classics and English (the nation) literature is what you mean by the term. There are entries for Historical Novels, poetry and plays, a separate entry for Shakespeare, a long entry on Sermons and an interesting canon of 'Novels, English', divided into 'Pre-Victorian' and 'Victorian', as though all of literary history was merely a prelude to the Golden Age. Of the Pre-Victorians, Austen and Edgeworth are heartily recommended, but there's room too for racy material by Beckford, Fielding, Sterne and Smollett. Aphra Behn's there, which is quite impressive. Mary Shelley and Wollstonecraft are excluded, though Byron and the male Shelley are listed under 'Literature, English', which is divided into Ages of great authors. The Gothic playwrights, Rochester and similar racy types are very much not present in the Ages of Shakespeare and Bacon, nor of Milton. Dryden's Age is notably boring, although Richardson's racy work is admitted. Slightly disreputable works by Swift, Defoe, Fielding and co. are carefully left unenumerated: the Works are recommended rather than individual texts. I'm quite tempted to get hold of Miss Ferrier's trilogy, DestinyInheritance and Marriage: it sounds like a 6 volume guide for ambitious WAGs. Of the Dastardly Foreigner, the German Romantics are by far the most popular, particularly Goethe. 

Pre-Victorian poetry is largely the people you'd expect. There's a special entry for 'Poetry: Victorian' though, rather interestingly categorised:
Arnold, the Brownings, Clough, Longfellow, Macaulay, Morris ('The Earthly Paradise'), Rossetti, Swinburne, Tennyson, Whitman, Stedman's Victorian Poets. 2. HUMOUR, DIALECT, VERS DE SOCIÉTÉ, ETC.
Austin, Barham, Bret Harte, Calverley, Courthope, Dobson, Hood, Lang, Leland, Locker, Lowell, Lyra, Martin and Aytoun, Praed, the Smith Brothers and Traill. 

Because the Victorian Age is the high point of humanity's achievements, it's only right that the novels recommended extend over many more pages than all the other Ages put together. Of the Brontës, Charlotte is listed under 'Literature, English', though all three are present in 'Novels', a subtle distinction. Dickens, Eliot and the Brownings are in, as are Dante Rossetti, Newman and Arnold: Trollope is barely mentioned. Only Gissing's Demos (socialism, bigamy, bisexuality and betrayal) is worthy of inclusion of all his work: a surprising choice given the content, though featured perhaps because of its hatred of democracy, industrialism and the proletariat. Vampiric bisexual Stella is said to be based on Jane Morris, wife of William, though I'm not aware of any same-sex gossip attached to her. Wilkie Collins, however, is respectable enough by this stage. 

The vast majority, however, are not currently in vogue: it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in your own age. Thus what we now consider 'classic' novels are undifferentiated from, for example, Anonymous's An Australian Girl, Walter Besant's romances (his dystopian The Revolt of Man is a blast against women's suffrage), Bret Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp, Francis Marion Crawford's A Cigarette Maker's Romance, conservative, evangelical, prolific, split infinitive-hater Jean Ingelow's Off The Skelligs (in which a girl is forbidden to play-act Shakespeare, on pain of joining her sisters in the graveyard), Meredith's Arabian fantasy The Shaving of Shagpat which flopped with the public despite George Eliot's enthusiastic support, Charles Reade's moralistic love triangle It's Never Too Late To Mend, and Mrs. Henry Wood's sensational East Lynne. Thankfully, there's a lot of Thackeray, Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is there and some adventure to balance out the education: Stevenson, Haggard et al. On the whole though, it's a pretty dull selection of safe, trite and unchallenging pablum. Nothing to scare the horses, let alone one's wife, children or servants.  

Interestingly, evolution is considered respectable: the works of Darwin, Wallace and various others are listed, although Haeckel's History of Creation is 'popular and somewhat exaggerated'). Sexuality, the lives of women and similar subjects are discreetly left out, though The Descent of Man ('devoted to the doctrine of sexual selection') and Geddes and Thompson's Evolution of Sex ('excellent summaries of recent work on the reproduction of the lower animals') might hint at a little pleasure for the reader too polite to purchase the books listed under 'Anatomy, artistic'. 

All this is a particularly open version of what we here in Ivory Towers calls 'canonisation': the process of carefully separating Proper Literature (in fiction) from Trashy Rubbish. In some ways, it's inevitable: on a Literature degree there just isn't time to cover everything. But every selection is simultaneously a rejection, on ideological, cultural, racial and other grounds. These chaps (and a very few women) probably thought they were choosing The Best. Nowadays we professionals are fairly careful about value judgements, knowing that such terms are heavily loaded. The Guide Book To Books avoids a lot of work associated with the poor, the foreign, sexual material, and a whole lot else besides, because its contributors' values reflected mainstream conservative opinion. It's not their fault, but it's there. No doubt my successors will look at what we taught and what people bought and expose the unexamined biases inherent in our choices too. 

Perhaps it's just me, but this list of books has provided me with hours of entertainment and not a little enlightenment… which is probably why I'm in this job and not left free to roam the streets buttonholing people with this stuff. So if you want to know what to read, get A Guide Book To Books, or any of its many successors. Just bear in mind one thing: even a list is never neutral. 


Anonymous said...

I think "The Earthly Paradise" was the most popular of Morris' works then. They saw it as escapist idle singing, which it was not meant to be. I'm trying to read it at the moment, having read Morris novels years ago for their utopianism, but coming to his poetry via Yeats - whose anti commerce, anti hucksters base blood, did not stop him cosying up to the big bankers when he was a senator. I can see how some of Morris inspired Yeats, and of course only the rich could afford Morris' stuff anyway.
David Hillman

David said...

My mother loved reading. She read anything and everything: bus tickets, posters, street signs, junk mail, magazines, newspapers and of course, books. Her taste in books was terrible: Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Mills & Boon, sugary love stories, murder, gore and like hundreds of thousands of others I’m sure she would have loved 50 Shades of Grey.

Me, I read the classics. I was guided by my teachers at school, college and university to stick to ‘the canon’ and advised to avoid rubbish texts as, like pizza, pork pies and chips, they would poison or pollute me. It was only later when I began a study of Popular Culture at the Open University that I began to think about ‘the canon’ and its construction. Perhaps it was as a consequence of reading numerous books in the so-called golden age of cultural theory and becoming intoxicated with radical criticism that I slowly realised that ALL writing can be considered literature it was just a question of taste.

So it came to pass that I became liberated from the ideological shackles of The Western Canon. I no longer judge writing as being good or bad and I beg forgiveness from those whose taste is different from my own. I’ve since celebrated by reading Harry Potter, Agatha Christie, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel, Argosy Magazines, Biggles, Jackie Collins, Dashiel Hammett and The Warlock of Scantily-clad-elf-valley. I’ve even been known to pick up a copy of The Sun in my barber’s waiting room. I consciously draw the line at a certain type of magazine and website but I no longer consider writers who write ‘pulp fiction’ or formulaic fiction to be unworthy or worth less than the books on university reading.

Thus, when I came across @PlashingVole’s tweet “Don't know what to read? This 1891 book will cut through the garbage and highlight the quality” (the book being ‘A Guide Book to Books’ by Edmund Beale Sargant and Bernhard Whishaw) I was startled to say the least. ‘This’ I inwardly cried, ‘from the pen of someone who teaches in Ivory Tower Land in 2013’. Outrageous it has to be a joke, I thought. I instantly knew that the guide would reflect old-school opinion and be morally and politically selective. I managed to download an e-copy from the Internet Archive (digitised by Google from the Library of Harvard University) and lo, it was everything I guessed it would be. Of course all reading is filtered through one’s own value-judgements and ideology and I figured that recommending a book seeped in its time and place would be an arresting comment on our own current ‘guide book to books’ like The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide and The Modern Library by Carmen Callil & Colm Toibin (and an interesting one I picked up at the Buxton Book Fair a couple of weeks ago for £1 called An English Library, 1943).

Bob, the owner of The Didsbury Village Bookshop, regularly tells me there is no such thing as a bad book, only better ones. Me, I agree.

Liz Barry said...

The Shaving of Shagpat should be revived for its title alone. (Great stuff, as ever.)

Anonymous said...

This is worth a look:

Avaialble at the book depository

The Plashing Vole said...

Anon: I've read some Morris poetry and prose, but not nearly enough (especially if you ask my Morris scholar colleague)! I'm a bit of a fan of his circle.

David: thanks for your comment. I'm past being snobbish about genre, though I do think there's still a difference between good and bad writing in any particular genre.

Liz: I must get The Shaving… it's available online. I've just received my copy of Gissing's Demos, which promises to be fascinating.

Anon: I really must get that book. Thank you!