The World of Books

The Books Editor

How often do you over hear someone, in a book shop or over a stall at a parish fete, as often as not women, for women are greater readers than men, saying: “Oh, I have read that… I think”. 

Back the book goes on the shelf or the jumble sale stall. 

With so many books competing for our attention these days, books have become a part of our consumer culture. They are piled high in the shops, in so many three for two offers like packets of frozen peas. Once used, like so much else in our lives, they are thrown away. The time devoted to many of them too may be time thrown away. 

How different this was from previous era. One in the days of the monasteries, when a library might consist of only 50 or 100 books, all were cherished. But then they were precious objects not only of faith, but of great value, often costing the equivalent of a prize steer today. 

Even in the 19th Century when cheap printing made books widely available and education for all made reading more common, certainly in these islands, books were hoarded and cherished. In Ireland books from the late Georgian days were an important way of spreading new ideas about Ireland as a nation. The advertisements in a Dublin-published book of 1853 lying before me lists the 22 volumes of Duffy’s Library of Ireland, which included poetry, history and novels. All of these were meant to be kept and cherished. 

Often in late 19th Century novels the characters, especially those in working class homes, buy books and keep them, determined to raise themselves through self-education. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is the locus classicus of this idea; but the idea is found throughout the literature of the period. 

Canon Sheehan’s The Intellectuals (1911) is another case in point, but in an Irish context. But that belonged to the era of the literary revival in Ireland that both heralded and recorded the Irish revolution a century ago.  

But that was then. Nowadays it seems enough merely to have read, or perhaps merely sampled a book. But the real pleasure of books is not reading them, but rereading. 

Reviewers in many papers often refer to the skill of writers in composing their prose, even to the single paragraph. But to appreciate such skill one has often to read it more than once. 

Literary artists

The great literary artists of the past – such Homer, Thucydides, Dante and Newman – did not intend their books merely to be skimmed over once. Leaving aside the Divina Commedia, surely a Grammar of Assent or Apologia Pro Vita Sua were intended to be read more than once. 

But even what we read merely for simple pleasure rather than intellectual enjoyment benefits  from rereading. 

But very oddly when you read see articles in the magazines or colour supplements about celebrities, even celebrity authors, at home, I am always surprised to see how few books there are, often merely some large coffee table books strategically placed as part of the decor. Other times there rises behind them shelves on which are arrayed bright, new titles, many only two or three years old. 

All these people will of course claim to have several important books all recent on the go. Here, as in the house itself, taste and fashion dictate what is thought important.  

These days no-one, aside I suppose from literary people like myself, seem to keep their older books. Strangely enough this can apply in libraries too. 

The culture of today is to dismiss the past. What even students of English literature want, or rather feel they need, are books of the last decade or so. The theses with which they are engaged will require them to show familiarity with the latest trends in theory and criticism. Rereading for pleasure is dead. 

One hears strange rumours that some on the scientific side of the universities deprecate the time and space and money spent on storing all those copyright books. What do we need the past for, seems to be the notion. But I suppose as its the past that has got us to where we are today, all those millions of years of human history, it must have some importance.