BOOKS ARE THE CARRIERS of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change, windows on the world, and (as a poet has said) "lighthouses erected in the sea of time." They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print. Beginnings of the Book IN THE AGE of Homer, books consisted of sheets made from the papyrus plant glued together to form a roll sometimes 20-40 feet long, fastened to a wooden roller. The whole of the Odyssey, according to Herodotus, was on one such roller. For convenience, the rolls were later divided into sections of prescribed length and stored in jars, until they gave way to the codex or bound volume which could be kept on shelves.
The Greeks assembled large libraries at Ephesus and Pergamum, in what is now Turkey, and of course at Alexandria under the Ptolemies, Alexander's successors as the rulers of Egypt. Books represented prestige if one may judge from Ptolemy Epiphanes who, being jealous of the library at Pergamum, embargoed the export of papyrus in about 190 B.C. When, 150 years later, Mark Antony presented Cleopatra with the library of Pergamum as presumably the then equivalent of a diamond necklace, it contained, according to Plutarch, the startling figure of 200,000 volumes.
At about this time, the Chinese invented paper made from a mixture of bark and hemp, and about a hundred years later, in the first century, A.D., invented printing from wooden blocks. One cannot help speculating what might have been the effect on Western culture if block printing had replaced the laborious hand copying of manuscripts in Europe as early as the first century A.D. A millenium passed before the Chinese made the leap to moveable type in about 1100 A.D., 350 years before Gutenberg. They fashioned the type first of clay, later of porcelain, copper and lead.
In Europe, two developments of the 13th century -- paper and eyeglasses -- gave reading a momentous boost. Hitherto, for most people, acquaintance with literature was gained through listening. The manufacture of paper from rag pulp or a mixture of flax and hemp, by facilitating multiple copies, greatly extended the spread of a given word, while eyeglasses, perhaps even more importantly, extended the years in which a reader could become acquainted with books and a scholar could study. When one stops to consider what life would be like without the ability to read after age 40 or thereabouts, and the consequences for the life of the mind in general, eyeglasses suddenly appear as important as the wheel.
It is astonishing how wide a distribution certain books achieved in the age of manuscript. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, so-called, a celebrated hoax whose author was in fact a physician of Liege named Jean de Bourgogne, attained a rapid and amazing popularity. Written about 1360 and immediately translated from French into English, Latin, Italian and other languages, it was copied in innumerable editions, of which no fewer than 225 manuscripts of the 14th and 15th centuries survive. For books like this of popular information, for encyclopedias, romances, the classics and church fathers, professional scribes were kept busy filling the demands of rich patrons, universities, clergy and booksellers. Cosimo de Medici employed 45 copyists who turned out 200 volumes in 22 months. His contemporary, Federigo the Younger, Duke of Urbino, employed 30-40 copyists for 14 years, and although he lived to see the printing press, his library, according to his biographer, contained "not a single printed book; he would have been ashamed to have one." All-Time Favorites IN THE POST-GUTENBERG WORLD, books naturally achieved a much wider audience than before and reigned as the mind's main source of pleasure, knowledge and information for the next 450 years, until the advent of an easier alternative, namely, of radio in 1921 and television which came into public use about 1948. But before reaching that historical divide, I should like to consider books as a unified subject from Homer to the 20th century, without shifting gears at Gutenberg.
During this period were written the books that have become permanent possessions of the Western mind, beginning with the Iliad and Odyssey, the Old and New Testaments, the Greek tragedies, the works of Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus and Thucydides, Virgil, Horace and Ovid, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Dante's Devine Comedy, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Machiavelli's Prince, More's Utopia, Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Shakespeare's plays, Locke's Essay on Human Understanding, Gibbon's Rome, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Jane Austen8s novels. The characters who have entered our blood stream were conceived: Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, Candide, Madame Bovary, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes.
But contemporary judgments often differed from ours: Henry James could not finish Crime and Punishment while Robert Louis Stevenson thought it the best book he had read in 10 years. Coleridge thought Gibbon "detestable" while Adam Smith thought The Decline and Fall a classic that put Gibbon first among the writers of his time. Charles Lamb could read neither Gibbon nor Josephus, which I find odd because while I too cannot read Josephus, I am a Gibbon enthusiast. Emerson said Shelley was "never a poet." Edward FitzGerald was bored by Browning, not to mention Mrs. Browning, and could not relish George Eliot at all. For this he would be snubbed by the literary arbiters of today who have suddenly elevated Middlemarch as the absolute bench mark of educated taste. I have to confess that I find it a female Moby Dick, one of those mysterious books that critics admire and few readers can push their way through. Melville's epic may collect the critical hosannas, but as Harold Ross once remarked, many of us, if put to it, could not quickly say whether Moby Dick is the captain or the whale. A Passion for Reading BY NO COINCIDENCE, these great works were written in an age of passion for books, when people read with emotion, devotion and insatiable appetite. A learned German in an 18th-century spa had his Homer printed on rubber so that he could read in the bath. Books moved readers in their deepest feelings, and sometimes to action that altered history. Reading was reguarded by its true devotees as a human need as basic as food or love. A book, after all, was required underneath that famous bough along with bread, wine and the beloved, to make a paradise of the wilderness.
Learning to read was formerly less of a problem than it is today. Reading was learned rather than taught, and the precocity was startling. We all know about the prodigious infancy of John Stuart Mill, but he was not unique. Swift was reading the Bible and Dr. Johnson the Book of Common Prayer before each was three. Byron read constantly from the age of five, and from the moment he could read, his grand passion, I am happy to say, was history. The most voracious and omnivorous of all was Macaulay who too began at three, lying on a rug before the fire, reading while eating bread and butter, and afterwards expounding to his nurse what he had read. As he grew he read at all hours, sitting, standing and walking, climbing a gate, crossing a street, Greek and Latin equally with English and modern languages, consuming mountains of volumes, and dying in his library with a book open to his lap. By the time they were seven, such early beginners had absorbed incredible kinds and quantities of books, besides reading aloud and reciting from memory reams of poetry, and imbibing in the process the soulds and construction and beauties of their native language. This was what made writers, and is one reason why, now that memorizing and reciting have been more or less abandoned, command of prose structure is so feeble today.
Our forefathers in colonial America, if too busy conquering a continent to produce creative writers, were eager readers of the classics, the latest verse and novels from England, and political philosophers from the continent. "To read the Latin and Greek authors in the original," said Jefferson, "is a sublime luxury," nor was it his alone. The Virginia planter William Byrd added Hebrew, and on rising customarily read one or another of the ancient authors in the original before prayers. Colonial Charleston, Williamsburg, Philadelphia, New York and Boston all had booksellers and, beginning in the 1740s, circulating libraries. Boston's first of its kind was established in 1756 with 1200 volumes of history, travel, biography, drama, fiction, poetry, law and the useful arts. Its founder, a bookseller named John Mein, advertised it as designed to "amuse the man of leisure, to afford an elegant and aggreable relaxation to the minds of men of business, and to insinuate knowledge and instruction under the veil of entertainment to the fair sex." Was it Mr. Mein's secret object, one wonders, to insinuate knowledge in ladies' minds without their knowing it. or to offer them a way of acquiring knowledge without showing it? Books that Changed Our Minds THEN AS NOW -- and perhaps more then than now -- books had the power to transport a reader to another time and place, and certain books could so deeply involve him that he felt himself engaged in their events. Richardson's Pamela, rather inexactly called the first English novel, was one of these. Published in 1740, its tale of seduction resisted and villainy thwarted by innocence absorbed virtually everyone who could read, in America and France no less than in England. In one village where the ihabitants listened to the local blacksmith read it aloud day by day, their interest in the heroine's defense of her virtue became so intense that work was neglected, village business came to a standstill, the smith was kept reading till light faded, and when at last Pamela won through to marriage, the auditors in their excitement rushed in a body to the church to ring a peal of wedding bells.
Historic power lies in the book that by the force of its ideas moves men to action or so alters the climate of though as to become itself a factor of history. Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, opening the gate from the old regime into the modern world of political democracy, and ultimately creating the American Constitution, was such a factor. Not long afterward, Rousseau's Social Contract combined with his Confessions and Emile proved among the most influential works ever written for the development of the modern mind, even if the author, as I think, was a stinker. In the next decade, the eloquence and thrust of Tom Paine's Common Sence published in 1776, "is working," said George Washington, "a powerful change in the minds of men." Selling an estimated 150,000 copies in its first year, the equivalent of eight million today, it convinced the doubtful of the logic of independence and persuaded many to take up their muskets.
Equaling if not surpassing Paine in public effect, the most influential book ever written by an American was the work of a woman who had previously written only domestic sketches for magazines. Published in 1852 in two little black cloth volumes with a cabin stamped in gold on the cover, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold out its first edition of 5,000 in a week, 100,000 before Christmas, 500,000 in five years, and eventually by the end of the century, a total, including European sales, of six-and-a-half million, the largest number of readers ever reached by an American book before the mass circulation of paperbacks in our time. A congressman to whom Mrs. Stowe's husband gave the book as he was departing by train for Washington, fell enthralled from the first word and as he read on, became embarrassed by the attention he was exciting among other passengers because of the tears he could not restrain. Leaving the train at Springfield, he took a room in a hotel and sat up most of the night, reading and weeping as much as he wished.
Beneath some of the most egregious mid-Victorian molasses ever committed to writing, there were ideas in this book and a genuine passion, and it is these that account for the depth of its influence and for Lincoln's acknowledgement, even if facetious, "So this is the little lady who made this big war." Without the passion that kept Mrs. Stowe writing at her kitchen table after a day's caring for her five children, the sentimentality of her story would have become intolerable within 10 years. It is an author's passion, whatever its form, whether embodied in Mrs. Stowe's molasses, or Swift's satire, or Poe's lurid imagination, that makes a pulse beat on the printed page and keeps a book alive long after the writer is dust. The Author as Superstar AS READERSHIP widened in the 19th century, the pleasure that books gave evoked a gratitude from readers amounting in some cases almost to worship of a particular author. Walter Scott was an object of this mass admiration, though not on the whole that of the more highbrow among his fellow writers. Coleridge found him passionless, able to amuse without requiring any effort of thought; to narrate with more vivacity and effect than anyone else but not "to create characters that move us deeply." True enough. There are some books that require the reader to reach, to stand on tiptoe, as it were, to read them. There are others that do not necessarily have to make one think to be worth reading and enjoyable. Scott's were unquestionably both, for their story their vivid scenes, their reconstruction of history as a living past. They pleased all ranks and classes of men, Thomas Love Peacock acknowledged. When each new Waverly novel appeared, he wrote, "the scholar lays aside his Plato, the statesman suspends his calculations, the young lady deserts her [embroidery] hoop, the critic smiles as he trims his lamp, and the weary artisan resigns his sleep for the refreshment of the magjic page." What writer could ask for more? "The refreshment of the magic page" condenses in six words all that I am talking about.
Dickens succeeded to Scott's crown, though faring no better among the critics who found much to admire and more to excite distaste. He was more successful than any other novelist who ever lived, declared Sir Leslie Stephen, "in hitting off the precise tone of thought and feeling that would find favor among the grocers." This appropriate sneer by the father of Virginia Woolf disapproves for the wrong reason: the more grocers -- presumably middle-class lowbrows -- who read the better. The real flaw in Dickens is that for all his creative genius in story and character, he is a sloppy writer; for style I would rather read Somerset Maugham who can at least handle the English language. And for slush, Dickens could equal Mrs. Stowe.
The public adored it and transferred their adoration to his person. He was cheered in the streets on his first visit to America, trailed by multitudes, entertained at splendid balls and banquets, visited by committees bearing gifts, greeded when he went to the theater by the whole audience rising to its feet. For almost 30 years, each of his 16 successive books was the best seller of its day, and when he died in 1870, it was said by one journal that "no living man in the last 30 years has given such cheer and joy to so many millions." That was what books could do, and why authors were loved.
Surprisingly, the crown passed to Kipling who, at the height of his popularity, was said by William Dean Howells to be "at this moment possibly the most famous man in the world." When he fell critically ill with pneumonia in New York in 1899, bulletins were issued from his bedside to calm the public and when he recovered, the rejoicing was worldwide. An entire Kipling issue was published by an American journal whose readers were reminded that they had just passed through 10 days of anxiety and suspense in which they were threatened "by the greatest calamity that could fall upon English literature."
For some reason not clear to me, comments about Kipling tent to extremism. I have never understood the animosity of some critics toward him, for at his best, apart from lapses, he was a brilliant writer. "It is odd, this hostility to Kipling," writes P. G. Wodehouse. "How the intelligentsia seem to loathe him, and how we of the canaille revel in his stuff." I suppose the reason is that the canaille love Kipling for his ding-dong ballads and the intelligentsia hate him for his attidudes. Yet a puzzle remains: If the highbrows can stomach, indeed admire, Ezra Pound who was a fascist and technically a traitor, why do they foam at Kipling because he was an imperialist, a perfectly normal thing to be in his time and place" Was Jefferson a "racist" because he owned slaves, or King Solomon a "sexist" because he had a harem? These labels represent attitudes of our time, and it is quite absurd, not to say unhistorical, to apply them retroactively, especially as a form of literary criticism.
Hostility to books is testimony to their influence. When the Nazis or any other authoritarian group makes bonfires of books, it is because they fear them as an alternative voice -- a voice not necessarily of dissent but of difference, which is dangerous to the single-minded. Because the book is written by an individual -- and only so long as it continues to be so written -- because it is conceived by a single mind and single volition, it will always be different in some way from received doctrine; will always remain the voice of the individual which, as I see it, is the voice of freedom. Trash and Treasure AS WE ALL KNOW, books can be trash, and the public goes for trash as well as for quality. The odd thing is that it goes for both indiscriminately as exhibited, for example, by the fortunes of two famous books: Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, a superb novel, was a best seller for two years running in 1905-06, just preceding the even greater enthusiasm for Elinor Glyn's Three Weeks.
With the invention of book clubs in the 1920s, and of modern paperbacks with glazed colored covers in the 1930s, trends fly off in all directions. Following World War II and the development of mass merchandising, we enter our present era of sex, slaughter and slop, otherwise Peyton Place, The Godfather, Jacqueline Susann, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Love Story and that feathered born-again Christian, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Unexpectedly in this company of super-sellers appears To Kill a Mockingbird, doubtless reflecting national attention focused on desgregation and the South.
What is one to make of all this? When, nurtured by movie versions, the vulgarest sell the most, are we then, as the Cassandras claim, sinking into a slough of mass culture in which trash will eventually drive out literature? This is not a new fear. When the printing press was invented, Lorenzo de Medici's librarian foresaw a fearsome decline: "You will put a hundred evil volumes into a thousand clumsy hands" he warned, "and madmen will be loosed upon the world." What he evidently feared was demagoguery arousing the populace whereas the specter today is vulgarization reducing all values in art to the level of the most popular. The unworried will say that the lover of literature is free to make his own choice; no one is forced to read trash or watch it on television. But the question arises whether we will have anything worthwhile to choose from in a society conditioned by mass entertainment.
I am not among the worriers, or perhaps only, let us say, for two days a week. The rest of the time I believe that quality always bubbles up somewhere, that true writers will always be born and will create, even if the contemporary welcome is discouraging. Certainly in literature and art we are going through a shoddy period, and twice a week I cannot help worring that the rewards in money and celebrity of following the pop fads must inevitably corrupt the craftsman, as indeed they already have -- but then they always did. History has taught me that pessimism about one's own period is perennial; that people have always seen decadence lapping at their feet and have yearned for a golden past, just as the inhabitants of that past condemned their times, and themselves looked back in nostalgia to still older values. Guardians of High Culture TODAY, AS EVER, the priests of literature continue the theme that Dickens -- or his current equivalent -- is for grocers. They have staked out a high culture and a mass culture, and even, for the convenience of Dwight Macdonald, a mid-culture.
I do not know on just which level the arbiters would place Gibbon, but if their criterion for greatness is appreciation by the only the most refined minds, the immediate success of the The Decline and Fall would render it suspect. "My book is on every table!" reported Gibbon gleefully when the first volume came out in 1776. Though priced at a guinea, it sold, his publishers told him, like a threepenny pamphlet and was sold out in a fortnight. "I am enjoying the compliments of women of fashion," wrote the happy author, "for I have had the good fortune to please these creatures." That a book could both please these creatures and be one of the major works of our culture is hard for the critics to swallow.
The 18th-century reading public was doubtless better educated than today's, but public taste in any time is an uncertain standard because it is not a monolith. Some people like slop and some like -- and recognize -- literature. Today, despite our worship of egalitarianism, vox pop is not vox dei. A bester seller is not ipso-facto a good book, but neither is it, as the highbrows would have you believe, necessarily trash because the populace embraces it.
Pilgrim's Progress, a popular favorite and prototype of mid -- not to say mass -- culture from the start, endured to become, despite the disparagement of Joseph Addison and some others, the most widely read book in English after the Bible. When the educated minority differs from the common people in opinion of a book, according to Macaulay, the former usually prevails, but Bunyan's book, he pointed out, was a rare case of the reverse. On the tercentenary of Bunyan's birth in 1928, The New York Public Library exhibited 500 editions from its own collection including translations into 40 languages. A book that has carried genuine meaning to large numbers of readers over three centuries has validity, which is what counts. The Future of Reading BOOKS ARE MADE for pleasure and knowledge. "A desire for knowledge," pronounced Dr. Johnson, the inexhaustible authority on everything, "is the natural feeling of mankind." Readers will seek it and may even acquire it subliminally in the despised territory of mass culture. I suppose it is not impossible that the readers of Love Story or Seagull may have learned something, if only about Harvard or air currents. If Dr. Johnson is right, they will move on.
Books in their infinite variety, being self-selected by the consumer in pace with his maturity and taste -- unlike the imposed offerings of the air waves -- will always enable him to move on. No matter how many are trash, there will always be some at the tiptoe level. The book will remain the carrier of civilization, the voice of the individual, the "refreshment of the magic page."