Monday, October 1, 2012

The Mutability of Literature

While wandering through Westminster Abbey, Washington Irving visits the library. Feeling sleepy, the author takes an old book in his hand and it begins to speak to the him! 

'the little book gave two or three yawns, like one awaking from a deep sleep; then a husky hem; and at length began to talk.'

The book complains that no one has looked at it for two hundred years!

“Sir,” said the little tome, ruffling his leaves and looking big, “I was written for all the world, not for the bookworms of an abbey. I was intended to circulate from hand to hand, like other great contemporary works; but here have I been clasped up for more than two centuries, and might have silently fallen a prey to these worms that are playing the very vengeance with my intestines, if you had not by chance given me an opportunity of uttering a few last words before I go to pieces.”

Washington Irving and the little 'quarto' talk about the new literature which is not as good as the old, or is long since forgotten and of the old books which were a passing fad. The 'talking' book in Irving's hand is very emotional about the state of books and libraries and the taste of the reading public. Irving points out that anyone can now easily write and publish a book and that quality has suffered. These remarks sound very familiar:

'...the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints. They have made everyone a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming. The stream of literature has swollen into a torrent—augmented into a river—expanded into a sea. A few centuries since, five or six hundred manuscripts constituted a great library; but what would you say to libraries such as actually exist, containing three or four hundred thousand volumes; legions of authors at the same time busy; and the press going on with fearfully increasing activity, to double and quadruple the number? Unless some unforeseen mortality should break out among the progeny of the muse, now that she has become so prolific, I tremble for posterity.'

 Irving thinks literary critics have a valuable role to play in the face of too many books.

'But I fear all will be in vain; let criticism do what it may, writers will write, printers will print, and the world will inevitably be overstocked with good books. It will soon be the employment of a lifetime merely to learn their names. Many a man of passable information, at the present day, reads scarcely anything but reviews; and before long a man of erudition will be little better than a mere walking catalogue.'

If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information poured out every day, it's interesting to note that feeling is not new. It's not just the 'information explosion' or the 'digital revolution' that has made readers feel that they are buried in an undifferentiated mass of verbiage. What would Washington Irving and his little talking quarto think of  e-readers which contain thousands of downloaded books? Of self-publishing on the internet? Of blogs and tweets and Facebook and cheap paperbacks?

 Excerpts from Washington Irving's essay The Mutability of Literature (1819 - 1820).


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