Document 64: The Decline Of Book Reading

Source: Public Opinion Volume 1 1886, pages 338-339; this article begins in the column on the lower right of the page, and continues on the left column of the following page. This piece origianlly was pubished in The Nation. The piece reprinted below focuses upon the issue of a decline in book-buying in America, said by the author, the New York-based publisher, Henry Holt, to be caused a book-buying habit being replaced by a turn to the current fashion, the Aesthetic Movement, about which you can read more here

You might also enjoy this piece: "CIMABUE AND COAL-SCUTTLES " The Library Magazine of Select Foreign Literature, Volume 4 1880, pages 319-336, by a George Smith, originally in the Cornhill Magazine 42 1880, pages 62+

Both pieces are subtle critiques of the so-called "aesthetic movement", a fashion that both the authors argue is merely temporary, a fashion in taste that soon will be replaced by something more substantial.

In the hearing in Janurary last before the Committee of the Senate on the Copyright Bill, introduced by Senator Hawley, there was a good deal said about the rapid decline in the demand for American books under the competition of the cheap reprints of all sorts of books by the American pirates.

But Mr. Henry Holt, the New York publisher, added:

This is not the whole question. It Is rapidly becoming a question whether, with rare exceptions, we are going to have any serious books at all. Consider this a moment: the competition of books issued by these cheap libraries is ruinous to all books that are not in these cheap libraries. It is not a question ot the competition of an English book, which is reprinted for 20 cents, with the same edition of a book which is reprinted for a dollar.

It is the competition ot this cheap reading matter that a man can pick up and throw away with all the substantial books. It is ruining the sale of all books. It is not ruining the sale merely of books of fiction, or the sale of mere trash? [word is unclear in original source].

In the old days of trade courtesy, the pet extravagance of many a substantial citizen in an out-of-the-way place was to step into the bookstore of an evening, glance over the stock, and take something substantial home, in a shape which he could hand down to his children and his children's children. Now, except in favored places, there is no bookstore for him because the place is taken by a toy shop, with a few school books in one corner and a great counter full of cheap pamphlets.

The booK-buying habit is dying out. It was never confined to those who read. Books are largely bought by people who fancy books, who take them home intending to read, but don't.

We have ourselves little doubt that the decline in serious reading, which Mr. Holt says interferes with the sale of solid works, is now to be witnessed in continuous reading of any kind, and that it is from this that novels in a book form are suffering. To read a book—any book whatever—with pleasure or even comfort, the attention has to be so disciplined that it can pursue one line of thought for at least an hour or two. Keeping one's mind on a book of any kind needs practice, just as much as keeping one's mind on a speech or sermon. The capacity for listening well is now rarely found except among judges and lawyers, and even among the judges it is said to be falling off under the influence of printed briefs and arguments.

But it has to be cultivated in order to be either attained or retained, as everybody knows who only occasionally goes to hear a sermon or lecture. The untrained attention runs hither and thither like a restless child, and nothing but a very determined effort of the will keeps it fixed on the words of the orator or wards off sleep, in which, again like a restless child, it is very apt to take refuge on the slightest approach of fatigue. Curiously enough, too, the incapacity for sustained attention or mental effort is one of the most marked characteristics of the savage, as distinguished from the civilized man. All who have had to do with the savage in any part of the world testify that the greatest difficulty in communicating new ideas to him is that of getting him to listen long on any one subject His mind is as prone to wander as that of a child.

The capacity for reading a book -- that is, for keeping the mind fixed on one argument or narrative for a period more or less prolonged --has always, in modern times, been much more widespread than the capacity for listening, owing to the fact that we all get our earliest mental training through books. As long, too, as books were the only sources of entertainment, and large numbers of more or less cultivated people lived in the country, and there were no newspapers or other periodicals, and few amusements, and travel was rare and expensive, the habit of reading was kept up.

But there is great reason to fear that, what with the newspapers, and the magazines, and the art galleries, and the museums, and the theaters, and facility with which we can get other people to gossip with us when we are both idle and lazy, the number of those who can or ever do read a book -- even a novel, even a poor novel -- is rapidly declining.

In fact, we fear that any one who inquired among his friends, outside the professors and professional literary men, would find that the number of those who now ever read a serious book of any kind is exceedingly small, and that those who read even novels is growing smaller.

Most men who have not kept up the habit of reading, in fact, go to sleep over a serious book almost immediately, and throw down a novel after a few pages if the plot does not thicken rapidly or the incidents are few.

The thoughtful novel, such as George Eliot's, filled with reflection and speculation, would fare much worse now, even coming from an author of her powers, than it did thirty years ago.

The newspaper is fast forming the mental habits of this generation, and, in truth, even this is getting to be too heavy, unless the articles or extracts are very short. The reader begins more and more to resent being asked to keep his attention fixed on any one subject for more than five minutes.

In short, any one who flatters himself during the busy years of an active career, when he does no reading but newspaper reading, that he is going to become a reader of books at a later period when he gets more leisure may rest assured that he is greatly mistaken.

When leisure comes he will find that a serious book will tire him or send him asleep in ten minutes, just as a dumb bell would tire a long unused arm. To be able to read continuously for long periods, at any time of life, just as to be able to row, or walk, or ride, one must keep in practice year after year, by doing more or less of it every day or at least every week. The man who finds that he shrinks from a book and longs for a Sunday paper may feel as sure that he is mentally "out of condition" as the athlete who cannot bear to leave his easy-chair without a cocktail.

The falling off in the practice of book buying, even among those who mean to read but do not, of which Mr. Holt speaks, we think is due, in a considerable degree, to the superior attractions of what we may call other kinds of furniture. For books, whether old or new, are to the collector -- that is, to the man who buys books without seriously meaning to read them, and without feeling much interest in what they contain -- books are furniture rather than literature.

Thirty years ago, before the aesthetic movement -- that is, before the days of "art" and bric a brac in this country -- a "substantial citizen," who had made money and wanted to show it, ordered a library, as a matter of course, when furnishing his new house.

It filled some of the vast spaces on the walls of his parlor, which, in those days, the upholsterer, who used to be wholly occupied with the carpets, tables, and chairs, did not reach. But about 1860, the painters and sculptors began to get hold of the rich men, and pictures and statues began to take the place of books as evidences of wealth, and the hold of the author on him has ever since been steadily loosening. The aesthetic movement has loaded him with wood carving, China, Japanese ware, rugs, tapestry, bronzes, gems, and bibelots ot all sorts, which call for every inch of room he has in his house, and tickle the pride of his wife and daughters as much as his own, which the books never did. Consequently he has ceased to be a book buyer, and has become, either mildly or furiously, what is called a "collector."

With literature, in any sense of the word, he has now little connection, except through the monthly reviews, and these his wife is more apt to read than he is. Of serious books he knows little more than the knights knew in the middle ages, and the "literary feller" stands to him very much in the position of the "clerk" at that period, as the possessor of a curious art, but one which was of little practical use, beyond occasionally keeping the possessor out of jail when brought up for felony.

The Nation.

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