Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

1. Books—1905
"I have not read this author's books, and if I have read them I have forgotten
what they were about."
These words are reported as having been uttered in our midst not a hundred
years ago, publicly, from the seat of justice, by a civic magistrate. The words of
our municipal rulers have a solemnity and importance far above the words of
other mortals, because our municipal rulers more than any other variety of our
governors and masters represent the average wisdom, temperament, sense and
virtue of the community. This generalisation, it ought to be promptly said in the
interests of eternal justice (and recent friendship), does not apply to the United
States of America. There, if one may believe the long and helpless indignations
of their daily and weekly Press, the majority of municipal rulers appear to be
thieves of a particularly irrepressible sort. But this by the way. My concern is with
a statement issuing from the average temperament and the average wisdom of a
great and wealthy community, and uttered by a civic magistrate obviously without
fear and without reproach.
I confess I am pleased with his temper, which is that of prudence. "I have not
read the books," he says, and immediately he adds, "and if I have read them I
have forgotten." This is excellent caution. And I like his style: it is unartificial and
bears the stamp of manly sincerity. As a reported piece of prose this declaration
is easy to read and not difficult to believe. Many books have not been read; still
more have been forgotten. As a piece of civic oratory this declaration is strikingly
effective. Calculated to fall in with the bent of the popular mind, so familiar with all
forms of forgetfulness, it has also the power to stir up a subtle emotion while it
starts a train of thought--and what greater force can be expected from human
speech? But it is in naturalness that this declaration is perfectly delightful, for
there is nothing more natural than for a grave City Father to forget what the
books he has read once--long ago--in his giddy youth maybe--were about.
And the books in question are novels, or, at any rate, were written as novels. I
proceed thus cautiously (following my illustrious example) because being without
fear and desiring to remain as far as possible without reproach, I confess at once
that I have not read them.
I have not; and of the million persons or more who are said to have read them, I
never met one yet with the talent of lucid exposition sufficiently developed to give
me a connected account of what they are about. But they are books, part and
parcel of humanity, and as such, in their ever increasing, jostling multitude, they
are worthy of regard, admiration, and compassion.
Especially of compassion. It has been said a long time ago that books have their
fate. They have, and it is very much like the destiny of man. They share with us
the great incertitude of ignominy or glory--of severe justice and senseless