The Charlotte News



Marginalia, Two on One:

Bonfires for too Many Books

--A Double Hoot at a Sacred Cow

By Cameron Shipp

ONE of most colossal frauds practiced by and upon you and me is the sanctity of books. It is a fundamental kind of fraud, based on vanity, and we can understand it, but the thing is nevertheless a deceit and a vast nuisance. The best way to find out about this is to experience the possession of all the books you might want to name, free, and to have to pack those books up and move them across town..

Candidly, I thought when I became a book page editor and began to receive all manner of handsome new novels and biographies that this was a happy state of affairs indeed. Well, it is at that. It is nice not have to pay, even though I work for these books. But the one out of 200 books worth reading, and the one of 400 worth keeping are--well, I wonder if they are worth the worry of reading and meddling with the others. I think not.


I have long since, by at least two years, got over enjoying a burgeoise [sic] kind of pride in my shelves jammed with bright-jacketed novels, based impressively with dark bindings in certain classics. They impress an occasional casual visitor, but I fail to enjoy that anymore. I know that, as a display, those books are a phony key to my lack of culture and general information. By and large, most Americans collect books not with the greedy love of fine print and fine bindings that distinguishes the real collector, and not with the appreciation of knowledge or entertainment that distinguishes an educated person. We collect these books because we can make a pile of them in the living room and our friends will, therefore, think we are cultured.

I begin to mistrust any person who, seeing my shabby books jampacked there, begins to insist to me what a voracious reader he is. He is telling me "See, what a cultured person I am," and he is a braggart and probably a liar. But he is typical of most of us I think that, as we read Hendrick van Loon on the arts and, Will Durant on the philosophies, our object is not so much to obtain culture as to be smattered with the name of it. Smattered with it for the same reason we send a hundred thousand morons to college every year to get BA's--in the sacred name of Culture.


THE SAME REASONING makes possible these millionaire writers who produce the inspirational books from Dorothea Brande to my able friend Dale Carnegie. They offer shortcuts to distinction--to use Dale's own words. All of what they say is true, harmless, and in many instances marvelously helpful, but the key to their products' success is our yen to fetch ourselves up by literary bootstraps.

It was the same a few years ago. It was Hubbard and his asinine scrap books, Hubbard and his treacle-philosophic visits to the home of the great, and Dr. Eliot with that five-foot shelf. Yes, I have the Harvard Classics also--as gently impressive of dusty culture as the old maids with black velvet around their throats who used unctiously to recite Scott's Lady of the Lake. The Harvard Classics are about as useful. I have never read them. I never will, and I have never been able to find anything I needed to find in them.

Between paragraphs, there arrived at my desk three packages, from Simon and Schuster, from Harper's and from the Macaulay Co. I must end this and open them. Nothing is much more exciting than to receive new books--brand, spanking new volumes, fresh from the publisher, several weeks ahead of publication. More than likely, as suggested by the imprint of these reputable publishers, I will enjoy, or some reviewer will enjoy, these new books.

But a year hence they will be on the shelves, stale and forgotten. I am learning, my friends, to read and forget. Someday, I may be able to overcome my middle-class awe of printed things. Then there will be a bonfire such as was never seen in the rear of Paul Young's new white apartment house.

By W. J. Cash

LEWIS GANNETT, in the current issue of Story, holds forth on the theme that what this country needs is to imitate Adolph the Heel and go in for wholesale book burning. Or at least that it ought to imitate Adolf in burning a great many books--a great many more indeed than the Heel himself has burned--, though not, of course, in burning all the worthwhile books and sparing all the trash.

And of course. As Mr. Gannett says, we are as a nation afflicted with absurd veneration for anything that passes as a book. I remember that in the home in which I grew up they religiously saved everything. Not the magazines--oh, no, they didn't count. But everything that presented itself between covers as a true and proper book was carefully preserved. School histories and grammars, treatises on arithmetic and geometry, spelling books galore, geographies dating back to the time when Africa was entered mainly as a blank under the dramatic title of "The Dark Continent", reports of the North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture for 1897, volumes of sermons by the Rev. DeWitt Talmadge and the Rev. Dwight Moody and the Rev. Charles Spurgeon, cook books, novels by Augusta Evans Wilson and Bertha Runkle, and the Rev. Tom Dixon and George A. Henty, poems by Felicia Hemans--all these were kept embalmed under glass along with Charles Dickens and Walter Scott and Eugene Sue and Lord Tennyson and Barrack Room Ballads.

All the homes I saw in those days were like that, too. And it seems, indeed, to have been the universal rule. Mr. Gannett reports that his own father, a highly bookish person, kept all the volumes handed down by six generations.


And the habit has come right on down to our times. They no longer keep the school books for the excellent reason that in most modern homes there simply isn't room. But the libraries of nine out of ten of my friends are made up mainly of the best-selling novels and biographies and histories of the last twenty years.

But, of course, as Mr. Gannett points out, "obviously it is as absurd to keep a copy of 'Gone With the Wind' as to cherish the stubs of theater tickets. The book has been read--well, perhaps I have chosen my example badly; let us say, it has been skimmed--it has served its purpose; it is dead. It should, like last week's Sunday newspaper, be destroyed."

(I have to smile a bit at that. For, as I recall it, it was not in that vein that he spoke of "Gone With the Wind" at the time the book appeared. If he did not go off the deep end for it quite as strong as did those of his compeers who hailed it as the greatest American novel of all times, he still went off rather strongly.)


AND WHAT is true of "Gone With the Wind" is manifestly true of all but a few of the 100,000 or so books which are published in these states in every decade. The average novel and the average biography, history, or essay have their uses, but only such uses as belong to the current movie or the current radio program. They serve to amuse, perhaps casually to instruct, but nobody, having read them once, will ever think of reading them again. Five years after they are published, in truth, nobody would consider reading them at all--not even the inmates of the prisons and institutions to which they are sometimes sent in lieu of destroying them.

A private library ought, unless it is to be used for reference purposes, to be an extremely personal thing. And that is particularly true in these days when the apartment is becoming the usual dwelling place of people in cities. Even good books ought, I believe, to be culled out when they do not fit the personal taste of the owner.

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