Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

The Life Beyond—1910
You have no doubt noticed that certain books produce a sort of physical effect on
one--mostly an audible effect. I am not alluding here to Blue books or to books of
statistics. The effect of these is simply exasperating and no more. No! the books I
have in mind are just the common books of commerce you and I read when we
have five minutes to spare, the usual hired books published by ordinary
publishers, printed by ordinary printers, and censored (when they happen to be
novels) by the usual circulating libraries, the guardians of our firesides, whose
names are household words within the four seas.
To see the fair and the brave of this free country surrendering themselves with
unbounded trust to the direction of the circulating libraries is very touching. It is
even, in a sense, a beautiful spectacle, because, as you know, humility is a rare
and fragrant virtue; and what can be more humble than to surrender your morals
and your intellect to the judgment of one of your tradesmen? I suppose that there
are some very perfect people who allow the Army and Navy Stores to censor
their diet. So much merit, however, I imagine, is not frequently met with here
below. The flesh, alas! is weak, and--from a certain point of view--so important!
A superficial person might be rendered miserable by the simple question: What
would become of us if the circulating libraries ceased to exist? It is a horrid and
almost indelicate supposition, but let us be brave and face the truth. On this earth
of ours nothing lasts. TOUT PASSE, TOUT CASSE, TOUT LASSE. Imagine the
utter wreck overtaking the morals of our beautiful country-houses should the
circulating libraries suddenly die! But pray do not shudder. There is no occasion.
Their spirit shall survive. I declare this from inward conviction, and also from
scientific information received lately. For observe: the circulating libraries are
human institutions. I beg you to follow me closely. They are human institutions,
and being human, they are not animal, and, therefore, they are spiritual. Thus,
any man with enough money to take a shop, stock his shelves, and pay for
advertisements shall be able to evoke the pure and censorious spectre of the
circulating libraries whenever his own commercial spirit moves him.
For, and this is the information alluded to above, Science, having in its infinite
wanderings run up against various wonders and mysteries, is apparently willing
now to allow a spiritual quality to man and, I conclude, to all his works as well.
I do not know exactly what this "Science" may be; and I do not think that anybody
else knows; but that is the information stated shortly. It is contained in a book
reposing under my thoughtful eyes. {5} I know it is not a censored book, because
I can see for myself that it is not a novel. The author, on his side, warns me that it
is not philosophy, that it is not metaphysics, that it is not natural science. After
this comprehensive warning, the definition of the book becomes, you will admit, a
pretty hard nut to crack.
But meantime let us return for a moment to my opening remark about the
physical effect of some common, hired books. A few of them (not necessarily
books of verse) are melodious; the music some others make for you as you read
has the disagreeable emphasis of a barrel-organ; the tinkling-cymbals book (it