n author needs to be publicized thus strenuously and so ignobly, it is my belief, because, to an ever increasing majority of mankind, books tend to seem obsolescent. The most of us today regard books with a dubiousness, with a vital unconcern. They after all have no weighty part in our living.
It may be that reading becomes less and less widely favored as a rational pastime because, instead of browsing over a book, and without any ponderable mental exertion, one nowadays can always be looking at pictures—alike in our moving picture palaces, and in those philanthropic magazines which consist almost wholly of pictures, and in television, and in the pages of comic strips which disfigure our newspapers, and upon billboards, and in advertising matter of every nature, as well as in the depressing gritty atmosphere of historical museums and of art galleries. Everywhere in our present makeshift for civilization does one face this universal attempt, through the substitution of a picture, or by preference of several pictures, to minimize one's need to read–along with the attendant suggestion that reading is a form of labor from which one is being spared kindheartedly so far as proves possible.
We cannot expect the impressionable and plastic young, who daily are being reared among surroundings thus painstakingly pictoral, to escape being influenced by this ever–present suggestion; nor do they escape. They, to my experience—an experience, do you let me explain, which includes seven step–grandchildren and several hundreds of their associates viewed at close quarters throughout the last twenty–five years—they tend more and more to think about the reading of any printed matter as a bit of taskwork which now and then one needs to perform for utilitarian ends, such as acquiring knowledge of the current baseball scores or being enabled to scrape through an examination at school or in college.
An occasional murder mystery, provided always that it be sufficiently ill written, may serve to kill time—faute de mieux, so to phrase it with ostentation—but only when the book's youthful, sprawling unentertained reader can think of nothing else whatever to do. The notion of reading with an attendant sense of aesthetic pleasure does not seem to these young people comprehensible; or rather, while they may concede shruggingly the existence of this ancient quaint practice here and there among their elders, is appears abberational.
Descending from this immature point of view to lower levels, I notice that our book clubs do not often pretend falsely that their choice of reading matter for this month could be read with enjoyment. They protest instead that it deals with a vital question of the day; or that it gives you the hushed–up facts as to something or other which happened deplorably the day before yesterday; or else that (here to cite their more usual form of tarradiddling) if you are not able to discuss this book, which everybody everywhere is talking about, then your culture will be adjudged deficient.
I deduce, at the dictates of common–sense, that we are creating a nation in which by–and–by the frivolous notion of reading for mere pleasure will rest at one with the wild buffalo and the three cent piece and the great auk in oblivion. And yet I do not quite believe this. I have seen a vast deal too much of man's common–sense and his human logic, and of the way they work out.
I imagine, I grant you, that the average–novel reader—under which head I would rank those thousands upon millions of literate and fairly high–grade morons who today continue to read our better–advertised modern fiction, confessedly, “so as to kill time”—would disappear overnight, in the abrupt fashion of sora, if ever human ingenuity should contrive any other formula for time's trucidation, except reading, which could be attended to, single–handed and quietly, in your own home, or in bed (I mean, of course, without a companion), or for that matter, virtually anywhere else. But as yet there is no such other formula. And it follows that millions of us who would prefer an avocation less ruinous are led pitiably to impair our not ever over–vigorous mental powers by reading, and sometimes reading daily, much of the very best–selling American fiction.
For an example, at St. Augustine, in Florida, that haunt of the age–stricken, I now for winter anfter winter have viewed with compassion I know not how numerous hordes of elderly gentlewomen while they toiled onward through what they would have called, if only they had not been complete gentlewomen, “some damned book or other.”
There was nothing else they could do. Arthritis, or “a heart condition,” or some other of the degenerative diseases, had checked all physical activity for these aging ladies, beyond their twice–a–week attendance of the current moving pictures, but two blocks distant, and a similarly brief trudge churchward, in their very best apparel, every Sunday morning. In fine, they could not nowadays, as they put it, “get around much”; and moreover, they were not wanted anywhere.
—For they had no longer any physical attractions; their intelligence, and far more the sparkle of their conversation, had never, it is possible, been notworthy; their husbands had died long ago, without, let us hope, any unchivalrous expressions of relief; whereas thir children and grandchildren, “back home,” considered, howsoever tacitly, that Grandmother had become a decrepit, babbling, tedious nuisance. And in considering thus, one regrets to add, these defaulters in proper grand-filial emotions were wholly correct.
I concede that now and then the infirm, the pathetic gentlewoman concerned was a once potential grandmother who had failed, somehow, in a woman's vital duty, to marry anyboddy; but the principle, as well as the impatience of her nearer relatives, stayed the same.
So every year, in November, Grandmother would be shipped southward for a winter in Florida, there to consort with three yet other put-by grandmothers, or great-grandmothers, every evening over a card table; to write interminable letters “back home”; to attend church at eleven o'clock every Sunday morning; to spend two afternoons of every week at the Matanzas Moving Picture Theatre; and for the remainder of every week, either upon the veranda or in the pation of her hotel, “so as to kill time,” to read, and read doggedly, all the very latest best–selling fiction which was being peddled by her book club, or which had been sent in to her from one of the two rental libraries upon Avilés Street. That was too far to walk.
To any author it could not but seem a depressing spectacle, to observe the unhidden disfavor with which these patrons of literature continued to read onward every day, each one of them in a so visible, scowling tantrum with the especial book which she was reading “so as to kill time.”
She did not want to read this book, or for that matter, any other book. She was deriving from it no least pleasure, no interest even. But, like my aforementioned step–grandchildren and their juvenile fellows, the poor creature could not think of anything else whatever to do.
Well, and throughout these United States, I submit, there are millions like her, not necessarily in age, or in sex either, but in that habit, enforced by luckless circumstances, of needing, “so as to kill time,” to read the more poplular examples of our current fiction, of the fiction written by their mental peers. And I pity, with an admixture of wonderment, all these unhappy drug–fiends.
Yet they account, I suppose, for the otherwise unaccountable prosperity of our book clubs among rational surroundings; and of book clubs there is no self–respecting author but must approve most cordially, without any least unselfish reservations, now that book clubs and moving picture rights have become the main sources of a publisher's possible income, sources which may enable him to recoup his inescapable loss of money, nowadays, so often as he wantons in the extravagance of having, occasionally, a commendable book printed and bound and dust–wrappered and put on sale for considerably less than the manufacturing of it cost him.
Without book clubs and without Hollywood, so do I at any rate reflect, all publishers would now be in bankruptcy, and each of my later volumes in typescript. For this reason, then, should everyone of us acclaim the book clubs, because they aid in the production of books which they do not commend, and which in fact, so runs the colloquialism, they would not touch with a ten–foot pole.
And as go the books which they do commend, but in particular the books which they present as being “the month's choices of our judges,” inasmuch as I do not ever feel any more tempted to read these books than if they had been aspersed with a Pulitzer prize, so may these books do me no harm.
—Which recalls the fact that I do not seem actually to read the entire long way through any recent book nowadays. To my obsolete standards, almost all the books now being published by my juniors, by how very much my juniors, appear botched through their writers' failure to master, or even to have had a try at, the art of writing, so far as I ever could understand the principles of writing during the last fifty–odd years which I have devoted to its study and its practice.
I do not feel, though, not exactly, that I am right, and that my juniors are in default; but rather, that inasmuch as their goals are not mine, oh, most certainly not mine, so now in consequence I may be judging a well–ordered approach to these goals to be inurbane and gangling. I am really quite fair–minded about the entire affair; and I lay aside with benevolence the youngster's book, with a benevolence very far more nearly complete than has been my reading of it.
Excerpted from Quiet, Please, University of Florida Press, 1952.