Sunday, May 5, 2013

E.V. Lucas and the Gradual decline of the Book. . . .

One of my very favorite writers is an obscure Englishman named Edward Verrall Lucas, usually known in print simply as E.V. Lucas. Lucas was the author of over a hundred and thirty books, a few of which are novels and biographies, many collections of essays, and quite a few excellent compilations of poetry and letters. Lucas was born in the Victorian Era but he lived well into the 20th century, making him one of those charming writers who bridged two very distinct eras, the first one the age of railways and second the age of World Wars. But to the end of his life Lucas retained the quiet charm of an older, quieter time and his work has an understated agreeableness and the occasional moment of real wisdom. I came to Lucas through my interest in Charles Lamb. Lucas wrote what is perhaps the quintessential biography of the great Lamb and it is worth reading for anyone who is interested in the literature of the Romantic era.

Near the very end of his life Lucas wrote a memoir of his literary interests entitled Reading, Writing, and Remembering. It is a remarkable work because even though Lucas was not a member of the upper-class and did not enjoy a classical Oxbridge education, the was not only amazingly well-read but he came to be personally acquainted with a surprising number of important writers of his time. One of the interesting aspects of this memoir is that even though it was written in the 1930s, Lucas was already mourning the decline of the book. Lucas writes "it is amazing how little the public desire to possess books. I am not referring to novels, which for the most part are designed to beguile only for a few hours and are thus fittingly enough obtained through circulating libraries; I mean the books to which one would like to return. As a case in point, I will take my own compilation of the flower of other minds, The Open Road, and I take it, I hope without offence, because it has been the most popular of my works. Since its publication in 1899, between eighty and ninety thousand copies have been sold. Glancing casually at a really successful book, the A B C Railway Guide, I note that the population of Wigan is 85, 357; so that the complete issue of The Open Road to date could be swallowed up in that one not very large town and not a single copy be left for the rest fo the world. The moral is, I fear, that if an author wants to be read, he must write for the Press." (p. 130) Now, in todays market (which has a much larger population than in Lucas' time) most writers would be thrilled to sell eighty or ninety thousand books in their whole career, let alone for one volume. But Lucas saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, and knew how things were unfolding. "Perhaps," he continues, "the habit of buying books will come back; but I wonder. The book has so many enemies, or at any rate, rivals, today. First and foremost, the newspapers and weekly papers, which do so much of the book's work; then the B.B.C., which saves one the trouble of reading. These are the competitors; the actual foes are the theatre, the cinema, bridge, dancing and the late William Willett." (Ibid., Willett was a man who became famous for the promotion of Daylight Saving Time in Britain) Though the competitors and foes to reading have changed considerably since Lucas' time, he was anticipating a serious change in culture. It is interesting to see a man who died when my own father was only six year old, complain about the slow death of the book.

On the other hand, some things don't seem to change. Lucas would eventually become the chief editor of the Methuen Publishing company, but in the last years of the 19th century he was still an aspiring writer. His first important commission came from George Smith (of Smith Elder) who invited him to compile a book about Bernard Barton, also known as the Quaker Poet, who had been a personal friend of Charles Lamb and whose daughter married the writer Edward Fitzgerald, a man who become known for being the first to translate Omar Khayyam into English. However, when Lucas was invited to write the book, George Smith asked him to write it for absolutely no money. Smith's actual phrase was "Silver and gold I have none." Needless to say, Lucas was bewildered by this invitation. He knew how much time and research was involved in such a task and he was also bemused that such a successful publisher would attempt to commission such a work gratis. "I was shocked," Lucas wrote, "to find such an attitude in an office which had done not so badly out of Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë, and whose head, George Smith, could from his own pocket finance that magnificent work, the Dictionary of National Biography, to which I am so devoted that I have had portable cases made fro the India-paper edition and never travel without them." It is, indeed, remarkable to think that one of England's most successful publisher would, at the beginning of the real golden age of books, attempt to convince a young writer to take up a major piece of research and writing with absolutely no renumeration.

All of this suggests to me that despite the many remarkable and best-selling books that we have seen over the past two-hundred and fifty years or so, books, as a cultural and economic phenomenon, have never really been on a sure footing. Remember this, books had long been the domain of the aristocracy and the leisure classes, and at the height of the Romantic period in Britain, only a handful of people made a decent living exclusively from writing books. The most successful writers of books at the time were Scott and Byron, both of whom were not forced to write by economic circumstances. For the most part the only writers who were making good livings were those who were writing for the ever increasing number of magazines and papers. Even Robert Southey, poet laureate and originator of the Three Bears fable, secured his living through continually writing for these periodical outlets. Of course, the number of books and writers increased as the middle-class grew and people looked for new forms of entertainment to fill their free time. But with the exception of a handful of very successful authors, writers have always been a bit like the early baseball players in the US; a group of people who did it for the love of the game, got paid nearly nothing while the team owners made fortunes. Meanwhile, the competitors and foes of books have only continued to multiply and have now reached ridiculous proportions.

Debate still rages as to whether a digital file that we read on a screen can ever really constitute a "book" in a meaningful sense. And the jury is still out on whether so-called 'print on demand' will breath new life into the ever beleaguered book. But the one thing that the memoir of E.V. Lucas has reminded me of is that in a world of many possible outlets and stimulations, the book has always been on the ropes, so to speak.


Lorne said...

A very interesting piece, Kirby, that taught me something I was not aware of, namely that books have a long history of precariousness. I suppose in some ways it is like those who complain about the youth of this generation being nothing like their predecessors, a carping that I believe Socrates first gave voice to over 2000 years ago.

Fightfordemocracy said...

I have a lot of faith in books and their durability. I have heard talk of books disappearing ever since I can remember, long before PCs arrived in every home. I thought it was a way of expressing dislike of books more than anything else. I like books and computers and see no conflict between the two. In fact computers have improved books enormously - photography and art reproduction in books these days is both high quality and cheap. Not so long ago it was scarce and extremely expensive. But so many people are eager to set up a conflict - either you like books and are old-fashioned and over the hill, or you like computers and are pure and virtuous.

kirbycairo said...

Dear Fightfordemocracy - There is obviously no conflict between computers and books per se. They are both phenomena and tools of culture. But the decline of the book is inevitable for no other reason than for the de facto dwindling resources involved in their production. (That is if we are talking about books as paper objects which one can hold in one's hand). The jury is still out on whether so-called print-on-demand will help the book by making books with inherently small demand cheap enough to be accessible. However, even if print-on-demand does have a significant impact, the quality book that lasts will continue to be hard to get.

There is no question that books, as material objects, are in decline. But with the increasing popularity of digital books, we may see a rise in reading.

Either way, almost all the books I have purchased over the last ten years were produced in the 19th century and thanks to the interent those books are significantly cheaper and easier to get for me now than they were in my youth.