For some considerable time I have been living, as regards books, with the minimum of comfort and decency—with, in fact, the bare necessaries of life, such necessaries being, in my case, sundry dictionaries, Boswell, an atlas, Wordsworth, an encyclopedia, Shakespeare, Whitaker, some De Maupassant, a poetical anthology, Verlaine, Baudelaire, a natural history of my native county, an old directory of my native town, Sir Thomas Browne, Poe, Walpole’s Letters, and a book of memoirs that I will not name. A curious list, you will say. Well, never mind! We do not all care to eat beefsteak and chip potatoes off an oak table, with a foaming quart to the right hand. We have our idiosyncrasies. The point is that I existed on the bare necessaries of life (very healthy—16 doctors say) for a long time. And then, just lately, I summoned energy and caused fifteen hundred volumes to be transported to me; and I arranged them on shelves; and I rearranged them on shelves; and I left them to arrange themselves on shelves.
Well, you know, the way that I walk up and down in front of these volumes, whose faces I had half-forgotten, is perfectly infantile. It is like the way of a child at a menagerie. There, in its cage, is that 1839 edition of Shelley, edited by Mrs. Shelley, that I once nearly sold to the British Museum because the Keeper of Printed Books thought he hadn’t got a copy—only he had! And there, in a cage by himself, because of his terrible hugeness, is the 1652 Paris edition of Montaigne’s Essays. And so I might continue, and so I would continue, were it not essential that I come to my argument.
Do you suppose that the presence of these books, after our long separation, is making me read more than I did? Do you suppose I am engaged in looking up my favorite passages? Not a bit. The other evening I had a long tram journey, and, before starting, I tried to select a book to take with me. I couldn’t find one to suit just the tram-mood. As I had to catch the tram I was obliged to settle on something, and in the end I went off with nothing more original than “Hamlet,” which I am really too familiar with…. Then I bought an evening paper, and read it all through, including advertisements. So I said to myself: “This is a nice result of all my trouble to resume company with some of my books!” However, as I have long since ceased to be surprised at the eccentric manner in which human nature refuses to act as one would have expected it to act, I was able to keep calm and unashamed during this extraordinary experience. And I am still walking up and down in front of my books and enjoying them without reading them.
I wish to argue that a great deal of cant is talked (and written) about reading. Papers such as the Anthenaeum, which nevertheless I peruse with joy from end to end every week, can scarcely notice a new edition of a classic without expressing, in a grieved and pessimistic tone, the fear that more people buy these agreeable editions than read them. And if it is so? What then? Are we only to buy the books that we read? The question has merely to be thus bluntly put, and it answers itself. All impassioned bookmen, except a few who devote their whole lives to reading, have rows of books on their shelves which they have never read, and which they never will read. I know that I have hundreds such. My eye rests on the works of Berkeley in three volumes, with a preface by the Right Honorable Arthur James Balfour. I cannot conceive the circumstances under which I shall ever read Berkeley; but I do not regret having bought him in a good edition, and I would buy him again if I had him not; for when I look at him some of his virtue passes into me; I am the better for him. A certain aroma of philosophy informs my soul, and I am less crude than I should otherwise be. This is not fancy, but fact.
Taking Berkeley simply as an instance, I will utilize him a little further. I ought to have read Berkeley, you say; just as I ought to have read Spenser, Ben Jonson, George Eliot, Victor Hugo. Not at all. There is no “ought” about it. If the mass of obtainable first-class literature were, as it was perhaps a century ago, not too large to be assimilated by a man of ordinary limited leisure in his leisure and during the first half of his life, then possibly there might be an “ought” about it. But the mass has grown unmanageable, even by those robust professional readers who can “grapple with whole libraries.” And I am not a professional reader. I am a writer, just as I might be a hotel-keeper, a solicitor, a doctor, a grocer, or an earthenware manufacturer. I read in my scanty spare time, and I don’t read in all my spare time, either. I have other distractions. I read what I feel inclined to read, and I am conscious of no duty to finish a book that I don’t care to finish. I read in my leisure, not from a sense of duty, not to improve myself, but solely because it gives me pleasure to read. Sometimes it takes me a month to get through one book. I expect my case is quite an average case. But am I going to fetter my buying to my reading? Not exactly! I want to have lots of books on my shelves because I know they are good, because I know they would amuse me, because I like to look at them, and because one day I might have a caprice to read them. (Berkeley, even thy turn may come!) In short, I want them because I want them. And shall I be deterred from possessing them by the fear of some sequestered and singular person, some person who has read vastly but who doesn’t know the difference between a J. S. Muria cigar and an R. P. Muria, strolling in and bullying me with the dreadful query: “Sir, do you read your books ?”
Therefore I say: In buying a book, be influenced by two considerations only. Are you reasonably sure that it is a good book? Have you a desire to possess it? Do not be influenced by the probability or the improbability of your reading it. After all, one does read a certain proportion of what one buys. And further, instinct counts. The man who spends half a crown on Stubbs’s Early Plantagenets instead of going into the Gaiety pit to see “The Spring Chicken,” will probably be the sort of man who can suck goodness out of Stubbs’s Early Plantagenets years before he bestirs himself to read it.
Editor’s note: The above selection was taken from Bennett’s book Mental Efficiency and Other Hints for Men and Women, which was published in 1910. Readers who wonder where the “Gaiety pit” was (hint: Dublin) or do not know the difference between Stubbs or the stubbs of Muria cigars—of either variety—let alone who Verlaine was or what sort of journal the Athenaeum was… should spend more time reading Bennett, or at least purchasing a few old volumes of his writings.
Image credit: “In the library” painted by Edgar Bundy (1862-1922).