From one writer to another

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, A Writer’s Notes on his Trade by C. E. Montague. 

On the 13th of March 1930, Arnold Bennett wrote of A Writer’s Notes on his Trade:

It is a very good book. Some chapter-titles will give a fair notion of its contents: “Three ways of saying things,” “Easy reading hard writing.” “Too true to be good,” “Doing without workmanship,” “A living language.” all professional writers, and the innumerable legion of amateur writers, will immediately be attracted by these subjects, which Montague treats with love, ingenuity, knowledge, and wisdom. And my conviction is that a large proportion of the non-writing public would be attracted by them. I have no sympathy with the too prevalent writer’s tendency to despise the non-writing public.

It is a very good book, written by someone on the same wavelength as Bennett and capable, like Bennett of composing sentences as elegant as they are witty. Writing of the “tickled” – those that may never have been great students but enjoyed what they read – and the “untickled” – the studious but also unmoved by what they read – he commented:

The untickled may have won any number of scholarships and first classes but before they are thirty they are as dead to what they read in their youth as they are to the trousers in which they read it.

Only the writer confident in himself and free from the fashions of the moment can write like this. What may seem a throw-away line actually contains an important truth which we, if we stop and think, can recognise too.

C. E. Montague from the IWM Lives of the First World War

C. E. Montague from the IWM Lives of the First World War

Is the book relevant today? Would anyone wanting to be a writer gain anything from it? Would an established writer up their game? Or is it now only of interest to the literary historian (if indeed such a thing exists.) I wish so much to say yes and thus increase my sense of ownership over the book (again, if such a thing exists.) But it does have something to say to us all: that writing well on a subject you love and of which you know possibly more than the person next to you will always result in something both personal and, at the same time, approaching the timeless.

As far as I know there is no Bennett’s journal for 1930. Instead I have these reports from the Glasgow Herald  from the 13th of March: Shelley’s Lost Letters to Harriet by Leslie Hotson, reviewed in the paper’s Literature of Today, had much that astonished; the Mid-Scotland Ship Canal, to join the Forth with the Clyde, was recommended by the Parliamentary Bills Committee of the Glasgow Corporation as worthy of investigation by the government and from the Paris Letter column in Women’s Topics a return to femininity was noted and the comment made that “…as always happens in these matters, hats are following the lead of the dresses.”


The County of Roxburgh: tastemaker

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, the County of Roxburgh.


Roxburgh, showing rail routes – source:

Reading Bennett’s reviews from the Evening Standard (I’m using the collected edition, edited by Andrew Mylett – Arnold Bennett, The Evening Standard Years, ‘Books and Persons,’ 1926-1931) I am struck by the breadth of subjects on which he wrote. These are not book reviews per se. Rather they are the evidence of an inquiring mind with a pronounced literary bent. Lord Beaverbrook, owner of The Evening Standard and friend of Bennett, I am certain, was of the same opinion. I am equally sure he was hoping that by signing up Bennett, one of Britain’s most popular novelists, would only add to the newspaper’s prestige. Bennett characteristically referred to the articles as “book gossip.”

But what gossip! I’ve already referred to Bennett’s comments on the dearth of young novelists. But he also wrote on publishers who published unoriginal novels, the New School of writing (in which he included Virginia Woolf) and what he considered Thackeray’s cowardice. On the 7th of April 1927 his article on public libraries was published under the title How Libraries Can Form Public Taste: A Popular “County” Novelist. In it he writes of the post of county librarian being advertised by the County of Roxburgh in the Scottish Borders. He does question paying someone in such a post only £3 a week (worth £155 in 2014). He then goes on to add:

…public libraries and their librarians constitute a more important factor in the national life than we are apt in our unimaginativeness to suppose. If Blücher (with Wellington’s aid) won the battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton, we are entitled to say that the battle for sound literary taste must be won in the public libraries.


Carnegie Public Library in Ayr – source:

In an age that has seen many councils decide that public libraries are no longer either affordable or necessary, his words hark back to the beginning of what was to be a period of expansion in the provision of public access to literature. I also wonder how many other critics spoke so forcefully at the time of the importance of libraries in the cultural life of Great Britain? Bennett was a wealthy man, but he was by nature a democrat who used his position as a bestselling author to encourage the creation of a public that read widely and critically.

He was also a social animal. On the 6th of April, he had lunch with Jane and H.G. Wells, dined with Lord Beaverbrook and then went to a house-warming party given by the leading British interior decorator Syrie Maugham!


My American tragedy

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreisler. 

The temperatures have finally dropped below 40ºC, and I can now sit down and write a new post without dripping sweat on the keyboard. Not that I have a great deal to write. It’s not often that I give up on a book but that’s what I did with Theodore Dreisler An American Tragedy. The warning signs were all there, if I had just bothered to read them in Bennett’s review:

I am not going to recommend An American Tragedy to all and sundry dilettante and plain people. It is of tremendous length. It is written abominably, by a man who evidently despises style, elegance, clarity, even grammar. Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know. Dreiser would sneer at Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer of some of the loveliest English ever printed.

For this and other reasons he is difficult to read. He makes no compromise with the reader. Indeed, to read Dreisler with profit you must take your coat off to it, you must go down on your knees to it, you must up hands and say “I surrender.” And Dreiser will spit on you for a start.

As an indication of just how reluctant I was to be spat on, I should point out that I read instead Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour.

Taylor wins on judges' ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

Taylor wins on judges’ ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

The review appeared in the Evening Standard of the 30th of December, 1926. It was the end of a year in which Bennett had set himself the target of 365,000 words and which, as he pointed out in a journal entry on the 20th of December, it was a target he had reached and would surpass. It was also the first Christmas organised by his partner Dorothy Cheston. Bennett had separated from his wife in 1921. Although separated his wife never agreed to a divorce but Dorothy changed her surname by deed-poll to Bennett. Their time together was relatively short  (he died in 1931) but happy. They had one daughter, Virginia.




Calculations in search of an explanation.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, just how much literary taste do I have? 

Time for a time out and ask the question, how much literary taste have I accumulated so far from reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett?  Below in the first chart is the raw data:

The graph!

This can be broadly understood as:

When I'm good I'm very, very good.

Turn it into a pie chart and it looks like this (ignoring any points that have fallen on the dotted line, giving them a value of zero):

Fancy some pie?

Thus giving me a literary taste rating of 59%. However, and I’m sure you saw that coming, what does Not Literary Taste mean? In this calculation it all seems very passive whereas you would think it should be taking a much more active role in determining my literary taste. It is not an absence of literary taste, rather it is a collection of data in its own right which demands to be considered.

So, if 100 equals an average literary taste then the books I read will provide variations, plus and minus, from that mean. This can be expressed as 100 + Literary Taste – Not Literary Taste, in this case (100+59)-41, giving me a result of 118. Thus, according to this calculation, my literary taste is 18 points above the mean. Which, to me at least, sounds better than a literary taste reading of 59%.

All of the above assumes every coordinate is of equal value, i.e. 1. But, and I’m sure you saw that coming too, the position of the coordinate in relation to the dotted line is an indication of the strength, or otherwise, of the literary taste given to me through the reading of a book. Should that not be reflected in any calculation? For example, good coordinates nearer the dotted line should have lesser value than those further away, i.e. the closer to Not Literary Taste the less impact the book has had on me, and the reverse for bad coordinates, as in:

Now for the big sums.

Weighted like this, the coordinates now give a pie chart which looks like this:

Damn, that's good!Using the same weighted data, I come out with a literary taste 84 points above the mean. All of which seems to point out previously unknown depths to my literary taste, and which would doubtless come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. I know what you are going to say. Literary taste is composed of a huge range of ideas, beliefs, prejudices, all of which in turn draw on historical contexts, class backgrounds, that it is pointless to quantify such a nebulous and subjective concept. To that objection I say that we live in a age of wonder and change, where technology strides across the world like a behemoth. It is only a matter of time before someone develops an app for the iPhone.

Meanwhile, I will take refuge in the bucolic idyll of Mary Russell Mitford’s Village Walks and plant a coordinate in the graph once I have read it.

A manner of payment involving very great evils.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. 

First page (with illustration) of the first appearance of Framley Parsonage in print, in Cornhill Magazine, 1860-1861. Source: Wikipedia.

First page (with illustration) of the first appearance of Framley Parsonage in print, in Cornhill Magazine, 1860-1861. Source: Wikipedia.

Step forward William Green and take a bow. Without him, and countless others (all landowners and tenants), Trollope’s world of high and low churchmen could never have existed. It was William Green’s farmhouse and fields in the parish of Rock in Worcestershire – the Back Green, Little Orchard, House Meadow, Furlong and Upper Meadow (all arable or meadow) – and the £1 10s 8d (valued thus in 1841) he paid in tithes upon them (worth £109 in 2010) that went toward providing the income for the vicar. In The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales, 1894-5 the parish was listed as having a net value of £637 (£57,400 in 2010), more than enough to allow ample free time to any vicar to wonder if he should ally himself with the rich and fast or the rich and humble with it, as Mark Robarts does in Framley Parsonage. 

Anthony Trollope 1815 -1882. Source: Wikipedia.

Anthony Trollope 1815 -1882. Source: Wikipedia.

The paying of tithes is, of course, a requirement laid down in the Bible – Genesis 14:19 is the first of many such commands. Leviticus 25:8-13 also mentions the obligations of forgiving debts and returning slaves every fifty years under the auspices of a jubilee. The Christian churches, however, appear to have put these obligations to one side, along with the prohibition on eating shellfish and killing witches. Tithes are recorded as having been paid in England since the Anglo-Saxon era, usually in the form of a share of the harvest. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 converted these payments in kind into ready cash. Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary, introducing the Bill into the House of Commons said:

Tithe was now, as it was then, a manner of payment involving very great evils, forcing the clergy to forbearance at the expense of what they deemed to be their rights, or leading them to enforce those rights at the expense of the influence which they ought to possess with their parishioners, compelling them to lose either their income by their indulgence, or their popularity by, he would not say, the exaction of what the law gave them for the support of themselves and their families.

To which, I am sure, we would sagely nod our heads and wonder silently just what on Earth he was talking about. But in 1836 these were the things to be debated, pondered and resolved. Maps were therefore drawn up by commissioners in which every English field, meadow, copse and spinney was noted, plotted and valued. It was from these maps, such as the one made available online by Worcestershire Council, that the likes of William Green was asked to cough up his £1 10s 8d. The Dorsetshire tithe maps (the likely inspiration for Trollope’s imaginary Barsetshire) are behind the paywall of so to hell with them.

The location of William Green's land in the Parish of Rock. Source:

The location of William Green’s land in the Parish of Rock.

William Green, and all those like him, are absent from the pages of Framley Parsonage. Trollope, I imagine, did not have to think long and hard to make up his mind to leave them in the fields, praying for wet summers and clear winters. Whatever their opinions were of the internecine struggles between the high and low factions in the Church of England, or whether a vicar should or should not ride with the local hunt, he was merely happy to see them pay their tithes every year, and let others in better-fitting clothes discuss such matters at soirees and the such like. But it is these silent heroes who make Trollope’s delightful machine whirr into action like the enormous whirry thing it is.

Have I, once again, missed the point in my Marxist-light reading of Framley Parsonage? I can only hope so. However, I am not blind to it being filled to the top of the churn with freshly-milked literary taste and I unhesitatingly add a sturdy rural plot of (8,1) to the chart.

How's them apples?

Next time, an attempt to quantify numerically my literary taste.

Spot the difference

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, telling the difference between Lytton Strachey and Hugh Walpole.

I read Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians a couple of years ago. Up to then all that I knew of Lytton Strachey I had learned from the film Carrington. From somewhere I had come across his reply to the question as to what would he do if he saw a German soldier trying to rape his sister – he was conscientious objector in the First World War – “I would try and come between them.” He was therefore a personality and Eminent Victorians was one of those books I felt I should read. But as I read his description of Florence Nightingale’s obsession with windows (open or closed, she was, he wrote, immune to good advice as to why the opposite was better medical practice); his criticism of Cardinal Manning for being, well, Cardinal Manning; General Gordon’s decision to listen to God rather than Gladstone  and Thomas Arnold’s introduction of prefects to Rugby with all that entailed for the more sensitive pupils, I wondered why I felt uneasy. Having now read Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, I have the answer. Lytton Strachey was not Hugh Walpole.

Frank Swinnerton (novelist and critic: 1884 – 1982) devoted a chapter to Hugh Walpole in his literary autobiography Figures in the Foreground. Walpole was, he wrote, “…a very complex character, impulsive, loyal, affectionate, laughing, but at the same time aware of the advantages of publicity and tormented by conscience, bad dreams, ambition, schoolgirlish spitefulness, and an incurable habit of self-protective secrecy, or dissimulation.” Swinnerton’s comments on Strachey are more guarded but of Eminent Victorians he wrote “…he [Strachey] carefully chose incidents in the lives of four eminent Victorians and quotations from what they had said, with the object of staining an entire age.” Bloomsbury, Swinnerton declared, he admired but did not respect; its laughter he wrote “was always salted with derision” and Strachey was the chief exponent of the Bloomsbury spirit. They were all terrible gossips, both Bloomsbury and non-Bloomsbury. Of their gossip, it is Walpole’s I would have chosen to listen to. He gossiped because he was a gossip. Strachey gossiped because he was cruel.

“We must start with the man in order to do justice to the work.” That’s what the German classical philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (1848 – 1931) wrote in his essay to celebrate the bimillenary  anniversary of the birth of the Roman poet Virgil. It would be easy to say that I’m just trying to look clever by using this quote. And, given that it is easy, it should, I agree, be said. But the words are written. A man with an impressive name, who lived a long time ago, said something that supports my argument. Is there more to be said? Well, a little. Hugh Walpole enjoyed being famous and rich from writing best-selling books. Lytton Strachey, in the words of Swinnerton, to amuse himself, sought to make “ardent supporters of the Christian virtues laughable,” doing it all “…with deliberate malice.” Hugh Walpole, famous now for the number of websites which remind us that he is no longer read, is of the two the much more attractive personality. It is his books I would look forward to reading, not being the kind of person who now enjoys the malice of another.

Next, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill. The first signs are very positive and I look forward to the accumulation of a great deal of literary taste.

Answers. 1. The glasses. Hugh Walpole, the vainer of the two, is wearing rimless ones. Lytton Strachey, always keen to draw attention to his physical weaknesses, wears rimmed ones. 2. The hair. Hugh Walpole, worried that he will not be regarded as an intellectual, brushes it back, exposing his high forehead. Lytton Strachey has no such insecurities and combs it to one side. 3. The tie pin. Hugh Walpole, keen to show his wealth and status, wears one. Lytton Strachey does not. 4. The pocket handkerchief. Hugh Walpole, for whom personal hygiene and being well-dressed were important, has one. Lytton Strachey scorns all such pomposity. 5. The book. Hugh Walpole does not have one. He wishes to attract a wide range of admirers by not appearing too intellectual. Lytton Strachey, on the other hand, by turning away from the viewer and reading his book, makes clear his disdain for all things non-literary.

Can I have your autograph Mr. Arnold?

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Matthew Arnold’s Essays on Criticism.

The February 9th edition of Harper’s Weekly, 1861, carried a lengthy report under the heading REVOLUTION IN NAVAL WARFARE. SHOT-PROOF IRON STEAMSHIPS. The news that the French were already building an armoured warship, La Gloire, had, it reported, led the British government to order the construction of HMS Warrior. Fast, capable of 14 knots, heavily armoured, 4 and 1/2 inch iron plates lined its oak sides, and heavily armed, 48 heavy 68 pounders, it would, the report stated, make clear that the British navy had “resolved to oppose to La Gloire a real sea-going ship of war; not a mere floating battery, nor a craft that would have to keep the land in sight, but a ship which should be fit to take the open sea, and, if need be, to bear the flag of old England once more to the enemy’s coasts.”

Four years later, The Lincolnshire Chronicle, on the 10th of March 1865, carried under the heading Literary Notices the following, “Mr Matthew Arnold carries to perfection the double faculty of delighting and exasperating his readers; but even those most opposed to his teaching and sensitive to his clever caprices, will rejoice that the Essays on Criticism, which appeared in several magazines, and by their ability challenged considerable attention, are now available in a permanent form.” Following his death in 1888, the Liberal statesman John Morley, then Chief Secretary for Ireland, spoke in the House of Commons noting that in “…the disappearance of that bright ornament of his time, I express for many on both sides of the House our sense of the loss of one who was a man of letters of the first eminence and distinction, who, besides that, was a public servant of the greatest usefulness, and who, finally, constantly showed a very keen and luminous insight into some of the most urgent social, intellectual, and political needs of his generation and his country.” The American literary critic Lionel Trilling in his 1939 book Matthew Arnold, writing of Arnold’s time as Oxford Professor of Poetry, described it as “revolutionary”, not the least revolutionary aspect being giving his lectures in English rather than Latin which his predecessors had done.

There is a risk in both of the examples above of simply being over-impressed by facts. But compared to the risks associated with leaving the top off a jar containing the Ebola virus or transporting high-level nuclear waste in cardboard boxes, the consequences are negligible. Perspective is everything. So, let us put Arnold on HMS Warrior. It is debatable whether he would have given the order to fire on La Gloire, given his declared admiration in the Essays on Criticism for French writers such as Maurice de Guérin, Joseph Joubert and the advantages gained by French culture from the Academie Française (central control as opposed to the dreaded and dreadful British provincialism). However, I would have given the order (he would not have wept, nor would he have reproached me – duty is duty after all – but he would have been conscious of the heavy symbolism as La Gloire was pounded into matchwood). But I would have given the order with a heavy heart as I would have wanted to have impressed the man who had given his three lectures On Translating Homer between November 1860 and January 1861 in the Taylor Institute Library, Oxford. Even more than pace the gun deck of the Warrior, I would have wanted to have sat in the front row and listened to him talk.

For that I would have willingly endured the contemptuous glances of the other men in the audience at my lack of side-whiskers (and very possibly from any women present also); I would have nodded unknowingly at the quotations in Greek, laughed in the wrong places, uttered “Hear, hear” in a way that showed I had not the slightest understanding of what  had been said and applauded before the end of the lecture just as I do when I think a piece of classical music has finished and it has not. It is very likely I would have even said to the embarrassment of those around me “Well worth £125″* – (the stipend paid annually to Arnold as Oxford Professor of Poetry and worth £9,160 in 2010 prices). Just as he spoke of the rapidity, the plainness, the directness and the nobility of Homer (all qualities lacking, he argued, in F.W.Newman’s 1856 translation of the Iliad), his own words carried those same qualities. “Few are those who can recall the graceful figure in its silken gown, the gracious address, the slightly supercilious smile” wrote G.W.E. Russell in 1904.

This is Literary Taste in all its glory. Reading the Essays in Criticism lets the middlebrow lift its head up and look the highbrow in the eye; it encourages a person to leave behind the provinces, make the journey to the metropolitan centre and yet still look on a literary career as just work. Someone, in other words, like Arnold Bennett.

Eheu fugaces labuntur anni (I found that in Wikipedia. I really don’t know any Latin). Within a decade HMS Warrior was superseded by the French steel battleship Le Redoutable and its rotating gun turrets. T.S. Eliot dismissed Arnold as being neither revolutionary nor reactionary. But I would still have pushed my way through the crowd on that afternoon in January 1861 and asked for his autograph.
A sturdy (8,5) is plotted and it’s full steam ahead for two novels by Hugh Walpole Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill and The Dark Forest. 
Full steam ahead!
*Dr. Williams, President of Jesus College, said after a later lecture given by Arnold “The Angel has ended.” Which is slightly more poetic than my proposed comment.

That seventeenth century again

Following John Selden’s Table Talk, I decided to stay with the seventeenth century and read Dorothy Osborne’s Love Letters. Covering the years 1652 to 1654, when Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector, they are a reminder, if nothing else, that even in moments of crisis, life continues. Marriages have to be arranged, gossip passed on, brothers assuaged and admonitions made to lovers who write short letters. These letters, written by Dorothy Osborne to William Temple in the last two years of their seven year courtship, show her to have been a woman of strong character, equally strong opinions, witty, literate, socially well-connected, who withstood the disapproval of her family so as to marry the man she loved. The very antithesis of John Selden’s life of legal documents and charters. However, having read it, I really have little idea how it helps me form a literary taste.

Had you asked a literate Roman in the last years of the Republic what defined literary taste, he would have likely told you it was the reading of Greek authors. His grandson, educated in the time of Augustus by the innovative teacher Q. Caecilius Epirota, who included Virgil’s Aeneid in his curriculum, would have told you it was by reading the Roman greats. Dorothy would have advised you to read the latest French novel while Dr Johnson would likely have thrown a copy of his Lives of the Poets at your head and told you to make a start there. Having browsed online Gladstone’s library it would appear that his idea of literary taste did not include Jane Austen.

Bennett’s literary taste, however, was broad, stretching from The Venerable Bead’s Ecclesiastical History via Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense to the modern editions added by Frank Swinnerton such as Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow. In 1938 to have read all these books would have set you back £87 18/- 6d, worth, according to, a hefty £4,380.00, using the retail price index as a reference point. Quite a sum to pay to form a literary taste. Perhaps we have lost the habit of reading widely. Bennett lists 327 authors and 562 works, all of which, I am sure, he had read. Perhaps too it is a question of time. I read on the journey into work and then in the last half hour of the day. Is it possible to form a literary taste, as defined by Bennett, keeping to this timetable? Does Dorothy Osborne fall into the category of enjoyable and interesting but not necessarily culture forming?

Questions to ponder in the future. Now it’s time to plot a hedging-your-bets coordinate of (4,5), slipping uncomfortably, once more, into Virginia Woolf territory.

Literary Taste: how much is worth?

When Literary Taste was republished in 1938 as a Pelican Special it contained an Appendix written by Frank Swinnerton in which he noted editions of books that were available in either the Penguin or Pelican libraries. Swinnerton wrote “In themselves, the titles here listed form a remarkable library, particularly of what is immediately outstanding in modern literature….” A reader keen to form a literary taste in 1938 was advised, among others, to buy Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. They would have paid 6d for the Pelican edition of Literary Taste and, had they bought all thirty three books on the list, would have spent a further 17/-.

Using the MeasuringWorth website I can see that 6d in 1938 would have been worth £1.19 in 2010, using the Retail Price Index as a guide. The 17/- spent on buying all the books on the list would, by the same criteria be worth £40.50. The average nominal wage in 1938, decimal not pre-decimal, was £161.87. To buy a copy of Literary Taste, possibly from Boots which had agreed to stock Allen Lane’s Penguin and Pelican books, you would be spending just under 10% of your monthly wage, while all thirty three books would have represented 25% of your annual income.

It would be easy to draw the conclusion that forming a literary taste was a matter of economics. Easy and simplistic. There is the role also played by education, expectations and class, sometime in unexpected combinations. You could borrow books if you did not want to buy them. Public and subscription libraries were popular, but often because they stocked large numbers of best sellers by L.A.Strong or Daphne du Maurier. Going to the cinema was also popular throughout the decade: a ticket would cost the same as Penguin or Pelican book. Working class audience enjoyed Hollywood films such as those made by the Marx brothers and disliked the quota quickies, British films made by American studios; a legal obligation if they were to show their own. Nor would any of the above have been mutually exclusive. There’s no reason to think that someone who read Literary Taste could not also enjoy A Day at the Races. 

No graph I’m afraid. I’m still reading The Love Letters of Dorothy Osbourne and will have it finished for the New Year.

From Petrarch’s book to Coleridge on the iPhone

There was a letter from the Italian scholar poet Petrarch that I once came across in Medieval Miscellany, an anthology of Medieval writers. I can’t for the life of me remember it now (I bought it as a present for my dad years ago) but it’s something to the effect that he was giving a book of his as a present to a friend and he listed the adventures he and the book had been through, including almost drowning in a river. This book, which had meant so much to Petrarch as an object, he was now passing on to his friend.

Apart from subscribers to the Folio Society, I wonder who would put the same value on a book they owned today? Not the increasing numbers I see on the metro reading ebooks. I’m not sure if I should include myself in this group, of ebook readers I mean – I gave up putting any value on books years ago, the price of being a librarian’s son, familiarity breeding contempt. But as I read Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism, recommended by Bennett on page 100, on my iPhone on the journey into work I wonder if I am a iPhone reader or just someone who is too stingy to buy a Kindle. I also wonder if I should be reading Wordsworth on my iPhone in the first place.

There is, I tell myself, no reason why I shouldn’t. Each year I see more and more people on the Madrid metro using ebook readers. In fact, I would say from my observations that there are more people using them in Madrid than Glasgow or Edinburgh. But of course there aren’t. Statistics, as someone famous should have said, are the mortal enemies of anecdotes. According to a report on the 10th of October in (Europe set to embrace the ebook) the market share of ebooks in the UK is 6% while in Spain it’s 1%. Which if my reading of National Population Projections 2008 Based from the Office of National Statistics is correct works out at 3,684,000 people in Britain with an ebook and, using the results from the 2001 census available from the Instituto Nacional Estadística, 408,473.71 ebook owners in Spain. So, whereas in Britain I could justify my reading of Wordsworth on my iPhone by saying I was part of an already well-established and growing group of consumers, here in Spain I am a literary pariah.

(The town of Baltar in Galicia, according to statistics from the 2001 census, saw its population drop from 4,018 inhabitants in 1981 to 1,233 in 2001. If the national pattern of ebook ownership was repeated in Baltar we’re talking about 12.33 ebook owners. Not so much a group of pariahs, more a coven of witches. A new census is being carried out in Spain this year so I’ll be keeping an eye on Baltar).

But I did read Wordsworth’s literary criticism and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on my iPhone, even though Bennett advises reading anything but short poems at this early stage in forming your literary taste. I had also ordered an anthology of contemporary verse from Salt Publishing. It wasn’t with any other intention than the vague feeling that I should know more about modern British poetry. But my reaction to its arrival in the mailbox showed that following Bennett’s advice had had an effect. I don’t know if it was Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “…the image of man and nature” or asking myself why the Ancient Mariner found himself at a wedding party (was that in the dream that inspired Coleridge to write the poem as well?) but I closed the book without reading more than a line, knowing that it would remain unread.

I don’t know if a reaction that powerful is a good thing. There must be good poetry being written in Britain. But clearly I’m not the person to read it or judge it. There is a price to be paid for developing a literary taste. So, keeping that in mind, I’m plotting E.M.Forster 3, Virginia Woolf 3. There’s movement in the graph but it’s hard to say if it’s in the right direction.

(The book didn’t go to waste. I may not value books as objects, like Petrarch, but my presbyterian soul demands that I recognise their value in how they are used. Books have to be read. I gave it to a friend at work who I knew would be much more opened-minded than me. In return she asked me what was my cut-off date for reading fiction and I told her 1950. The next day she gave me a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s, published in 1945.)

%d bloggers like this: