Reprint: Too Many Books! by Nettie Palmer

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Some one wrote to me lately asking my opinion about the censorship of books, and gradually I found that the writer favoured censorship in the hope of making books fewer. The more books were condemned, for one reason or another, the fewer there would be to cumber the world! It seemed to me a suggestion worthy of Herod, sheer infanticide. My correspondent was fixed, though, in a belief that books were to-day increasing in numbers beyond all bearing, and that if writers would not cease writing, or publishers cease publishing, mounds of books would have to be condemned and suppressed on some pretext, so as to clear a space for those that remained.

But what does any one mean by too many books? There are more books produced than any one can read, of course, even if we never returned to reprints of old work as we do. We never pretend to read everything that appears. Our minds are affected, more or less, by the books other people are reading. Thoughts jostle in the air, but thought is never over-crowded nor too plentiful. The question then is not whether there are too many books for any one of us to read -- for of course there are; but whether there are too many books for all of us to read. Are we choked and overfed, with books wherever we turn? Are more books published now than fifty years ago, in proportion to the number of readers? I was strongly of opinion that books had not increased, and while I was wondering where I could get my statistics for the matter I found myself supplied with them -- not Australian statistics, indeed, but English.

More Readers -- Fewer Books.

Sir Ernest Benn, who knows as much as any one in England about the publication and marketing of books, wrote some months ago:  

"We are producing in this country to-day, roughly twice as many books as were published in 1880. I doubt whether there is any commodity and I am thinking of books as commercial commodities -- which could show so little advance in the vital fifty years since that date. And yet there is much more reason for an increase in the market of books than for an increase in the market of clothes. In 1880 we had a population which was almost illiterate, the Education Acts were quite new ... so that the book market of 1880 was limited to that small section of the population which had the advantage of a proper education."

This is written of England, but is equally true of Australia. How many elegant, standardised homes have failed to include even one bookshelf in their standards! This might not be seriously wrong, if the people in those homes were never restless, never mentally starved, never discontented with the few and ill-chosen books that some one has brought home from the library! But these homes are rarely the abode of self-complete sages or of Mr. Dooleys. Mr. Dooley did not feel the need of reading; he made thoughts himself. When he said that the Bible and Shakespeare came before all other books with him, and that he hadn't yet read them either, you felt he was, nevertheless, a full man. But most of us have appetite for books, whether we quite know it or not: and hunger makes restlessness. The most tranquil homes I know are indeed those in in which there is always a book -- not often a new book -- within reach.

Where Books are Scarce.

Books are a curious invention -- a bundle of papers indifferently connected and covered, exuding now a stimulant, now a soporific. While reading a book we are isolated, cut off from those about us. At the same time we are sharing in a form of delight common to an enormous number of our kind. We are joining the mental life of humanity. It is probably still true, even in 1929, that more people have read a book, of some kind, than have driven a motor car. People enjoy books, without doubt (I am not speak- ing here about the qualities and varieties of books.) What is done in ordinary life, to satisfy this appetite for books? Books merely double their output in fifty years, while hats and cotton increase a hundredfold.

Take a small, typical country township, and its book-supply. It must be mentioned that the township has a butcher, a baker, two general stores, and two bowsers. The books? In each of the two stores there is a shelf? A shelf, did I say? No, for that suggests length, a dimension. This "shelf" is a more pigeon-hole, capable of holding two piles of paper-covered books, perhaps fifteen in each pile. The books are the kind that once were issued at sixpence, but since the war have been a shilling. They look like rather compact magazines. Thirty "books" in stock. Well, if they are sold out fairly often, it might mean that the township, visitors included, consumed five hundred in a year. But no; wait a minute; these books are not sold, except by accident. They are a circulating library, the only one in the place, and there are no new books anywhere for sale. These paper-backs circulate till they drop. You pay a shilling for one; then you bring it back and when you borrow its successor you only pay threepence. If you forget to bring your book back, or leave the township with it in your luggage, the storekeeper has your shilling and your threepences and all the other books.

Can you imagine any other commodity being dispensed in such a manner so niggardly and slovenly, and with such contempt! Bathing suits in the same shops cost a guinea or more, and are not hired out, though they are more toughly built than these books. The bathing suits are better chosen, too, but that goes without saying, for the books are not chosen at all. "Too many books !" did some one say? In three years the majority of books in those two files show the same names, which I should rather not mention, just as I should rather not undertake to describe a bathing suit that was both shoddy and worn out.

At this point, some one raises a mild hand and says: "But what about the books in the School of Arts ?" Well, there is no School of Arts in this township yet, and I admit that when it does come it will have a library, supported by a Government grant. There will then be a certain number of books, bound with some firmness, and they will mostly come in quite new. They will not add to the number of books to be seen on the home shelves, nor will they take the place of a book department in the stores, but they will go far to satisfy, from week to week, the appetite for reading. After twenty years, though, which is not a long period in the life of a good library, what is the condition of most School of Arts libraries? So far as I know   them, they are filled with a mass of old novels, dusty and out-of-date, almost never read now, with the addition of a shelf of "the latest," while they remain new. That is, books are ordered for the School of Arts in this way: the bookseller is to send twenty pounds' worth of fiction, which, whatever other qualities it lacks, must be new. Nothing becomes old fashioned so quickly and hopelessly as a book, whose one quality was its newness; it "dated" from the first. I would suggest that some books are never old fashioned. "Don Quixote," Henry Lawson's stories, Lady Gregory's plays, Charlotte Bronte's novels, Lamb's essays, most of Shaw's plays. A public library that added a proportion of such books to its catalogue every year would have something to show, at the end of twenty years, that was not merely an accumulation of out-of-date rubbish, something that needed no apology.

But too many books! Most people are suffering from book malnutrition, for which the plain word is starvation.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 19 January 1929

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 5, 2011 8:36 AM.

Great Australian Authors #42 - Nettie Palmer was the previous entry in this blog.

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