The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 1936
Good Taste Springs From Despised Reprint Pages
By W. J. CASH
Among the chief friends of the spread of the decent enlightenment and taste through these United States are the popularizers of knowledge and the makers of reprints.
The first part of that, I know, constitutes rank heresy to the orthodox credo of all good high-brows. Everybody from the late Irving Babbitt down to Dr. Allen Tate of Tennessee and Professor John Donald Wade of Georgia, has taken occasion in the last ten years to sniff loudly down his nose at such purveyors of information to the populace as Dr. Will Durant and the lamented Dr. George W. Dorsey, and to damn them with that dread epithet which, in the professional mind, seems to outstrip all others with ferocity and contempt--journalistic. Nor have the journalists themselves been much kinder. Henry Mencken, who, before he retired to beer and easy slippers, used to be the head and front of them all, was, indeed, more friendly than not. So also have been Harry Hanson and Lewis Gannett. And I think I recall more or less kind words for some of these popularizers, at least, from Laurence Stallings. But, for the body in the main, the newspaper boys from Manhattan to Kankakee have dispensed sneers as ardently as, and a great deal more picturesquely than, the professors.
All of this, however, I dared to think, is only a form of snobbery--and essentially as vulgar as any other. I am not ass enough to suggest that I imagine these works of the popularizers to be deathless tomes--but, then, they weren't intended to be. I am well aware that when the fashion of their production first began, some of them were pretty awful: that purporting to deal out knowledge, they actually dealt out only romantic guff. I know that even Dr. Durant's efforts were couched in a sweetness-and-light medium calculated to bring on a bad cramp in the neck; and I have a sufficient acquaintance with much of his field to recognize the truth of the charge that his statements are sometimes dubious. And finally, I am thoroughly conversant with the fact that such works do not constitute a shortcut to education and intellectual culture--that the man who has read only them knows no great deal.
Even so--. The fiction-vendors are rapidly being eliminated, and their place is being taken by such men as Bernard Jaffe, whose recent "Outposts of Science," is a sound and solid performance. And if it is true that the reader of these books, if he stops short at that, has only a vague smattering--well, at that, it somehow seems better to me that a man should know of Thales only that he is alleged sometime to have fallen down a well while star-gazing, of Empedocles only that Etna cast back his boot, of Heraclitus only that he had some cuckoo notion about fire, than that he should never have heard of them at all: that the terms Silurian and Cambrian and Devonian, the names of Planck and Rutherford and Bohr and Heisenberg and Schroedinger, should stir his mind to the dimmest and most uncertain recognition than that they should leave him quite wholly dumb.
They Do For A Starter
But the great merit of these popular works--the thing that moves me to insist that they are immensely valuable--is that they often serve to excite a dormant curiosity into life and set off an extended process of inquiry. Falling into the hands of some men having some urge to know but intimidated by the forbidding front of authoritative works, they provide enough background to lend these men confidence to undertake these authoritative works, and stir the urge into a positive appetite. Thus, I know a man who knows an immense lot about Greek history who began his excursions into the field some 15 years ago because of the interest aroused in him by that greatly panned book, "The Outline of History." I know another who spends all his spare time delving into the secrets of biology with a microscope because of the effect of reading another of Wells' books, long after he had left college. And at least two among my acquaintances date the acquisition of some decent knowledge of the history of philosophy from a reading of Dr. Durant's works.
Turning now to the celebration of the reprints--I name three series in particular: the Modern Library, Dent's Everyman's Library, and the Grossett and Dunlap dollar series.
The effect of these series to the ends I indicate depends partly of course, upon the obvious consideration that they provide well-printed copies of good books, old or recent, at prices within the range of everybody. But far more important is that, as veritable libraries in themselves, they make the way easy for the man who has some itch to get on terms with literature and hasn't the slightest notion of where to begin. What happens is that a man with such an itch buys a single item of one of the series, reads it, and likes it. And liking it, he goes back for another. Then before long he is a sort of maniac, pouring over the list of the published with hypnotic fascination. Every bookseller will bear me out when I say that the Modern Library and, in somewhat lesser measure, Everyman's, has a large following of definite addicts--of people who eagerly buy and devour these volumes as fast as they can, without any knowledge or care for other books.
A Grand Series
The inevitable result of that is the formation of a distinctly good taste; for the Modern Library is a cross-section of all the best which has been written in the world in the last two or three decades, with a sprinkling of classics to add flavor (I know only one objection to it, indeed--that it does not grow fast enough); Everyman's is one of the grandest collections of books ever made,--grander even than the old Bohn Library in the height of its glory--so grand, in truth, that one might quite safely confine his reading wholly to its volumes; and, if the Grossett series is smaller and in general lighter than the other two, it yet contains excellent stuff.
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