John Hill Burton.

The book-hunter : etc. online

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Those who are so very old as to remember the Episcopal Church of
Scotland in that brief period of stagnant depression when the repeal of
the penal laws had removed from her the lustre of martyrdom, and she had
not yet attained the more secular lustre which the zeal of her wealthy
votaries has since conferred on her, will be familiar with the name of
Bishop Robert Jolly. To the ordinary reader, however, it may be
necessary to introduce him more specifically. He was a man of singular
purity, devotedness, and learning. If he had no opportunity of attesting
the sincerity of his faith by undergoing stripes and bondage for the
Church of his adoption, he developed in its fulness that unobtrusive
self-devotion, not inferior to martyrdom, which dedicates to obscure
duties the talent and energy that, in the hands of the selfish and
ambitious, would be the sure apparatus of wealth and station. He had no
doubt risen to an office of dignity in his own Church - he was a bishop.
But to understand the position of a Scottish bishop in those days, one
must figure Parson Adams, no richer than Fielding has described him, yet
encumbered by a title ever associated with wealth and dignity, and only
calculated, when allied with so much poverty and social humility, to
deepen the incongruity of his lot, and throw him more than ever on the
mercy of the scorner. The office was indeed conspicuous, not by its
dignities or emoluments, but by the extensive opportunities it afforded
for self-devotion. One may have noticed his successor of later times
giving lustre to newspaper paragraphs as "The Lord Bishop of Moray and
Ross." It did not fall to the lot of him of whom I write to render his
title so flagrantly incongruous. A lordship was not necessary, but it
was the principle of his Church to require a bishop, and in him she got
a bishop. In reality, however, he was the parish clergyman of the small
and poor remnant of the Episcopal persuasion who inhabited the
odoriferous fishing-town of Fraserburgh. There he lived a long life of
such simplicity and abstinence as the poverty of the poorest of his
flock scarcely drove them to. He had one failing to link his life with
this nether world - he was a book-hunter. How with his poor income, much
of which went to feed the necessities of those still poorer, he should
have accomplished anything in a pursuit generally considered expensive,
is among other unexplained mysteries. But somehow he managed to scrape
together a curious and interesting collection, so that his name became
associated with rare books, as well as with rare Christian virtues.

When it was proposed to establish an institution for reprinting the
works of the fathers of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, it was
naturally deemed that no more worthy or characteristic name could be
attached to it than that of the venerable prelate who, by his learning
and virtues, had so long adorned the Episcopal chair of Moray and Ross,
and who had shown a special interest in the department of literature to
which the institution was to be devoted. Hence it came to pass that,
through a perfectly natural process, the association for the purpose of
reprinting the works of certain old divines was to be ushered into the
world by the style and title of THE JOLLY CLUB.

There happened to be amongst those concerned, however, certain persons
so corrupted with the wisdom of this world, as to apprehend that the
miscellaneous public might fail to trace this designation to its true
origin, and might indeed totally mistake the nature and object of the
institution, attributing to it aims neither consistent with the ascetic
life of the departed prelate, nor with the pious and intellectual
objects of its founders. The counsels of these worldly-minded persons
prevailed. The Jolly Club was never instituted, - at least, as an
association for the reprinting of old books of divinity, though I am not
prepared to say that institutions more than one so designed may not
exist for other purposes. The object, however, was not entirely
abandoned. A body of gentlemen united themselves together under the name
of another Scottish prelate, whose fate had been more distinguished, if
not more fortunate; and the Spottiswoode Society was established. Here,
it will be observed, there was a passing to the opposite extreme; and so
intense seems to have been the anxiety to escape from all excuse for
indecorous jokes or taint of joviality, that the word Club, wisely
adopted by other bodies of the same kind, was abandoned, and this one
called itself a Society. To that abandonment of the _medio tutissimus_
has been attributed its early death by those who contemn the taste of
those other communities, essentially Book Clubs, which have taken to the
devious course of calling themselves "Societies."

In fact, all our _societies_, from the broad-brimmed Society of Friends
downwards, have something in them of a homespun, humdrum, plain,
flat - not unprofitable, perhaps, but unattractive character. They may be
good and useful, but they have no dignity or splendour, and are quite
destitute of the strange meteoric power and grandeur which have
accompanied the career of _Clubs_. Societies there are, indeed, which
identify themselves through their very nomenclature with misfortune and
misery, seeming proudly to proclaim themselves victims to all the
saddest ills that flesh is heir to - as, for instance, Destitute Sick
Societies, Indigent Blind Societies, Deaf and Dumb Societies, Burial
Societies, and the like. The nomenclature of some of these benevolent
institutions seems likely to test the etymological skill of the next
generation of learned men. Perhaps some ethnological philosopher will
devote himself to the special investigation and development of the
phenomenon; and if such things are done then in the way in which they
are now, the result will appear in something like the following shape: -

"Man, as we pursue his destiny from century to century, is still found
inevitably to resolve himself into a connected and antithetic series of
consecutive cycles. The eighteenth century having been an age of
individuative, the nineteenth necessarily became an age of associative
or coinonomic development. He, the man - to himself the _ego_, and to
others the mere _homo_ - ceased to revolve around the centre of gravity
of his own personality, and, following the instincts of his adhesive
nature, resolved himself into associative community. In this necessary
development of their nature all partook, from the congresses of mighty
monarchs down to those humbler but not less majestic types of the
predominant influence, which, in the expressive language of that age,
were recognised as twopenny goes. It is known only to those whose
researches have led them through the intricacies of that phase of human
progress, how multifarious and varied were the forms in which the inner
spirit, objectively at work in mankind, had its external subjective
development. Not only did associativeness shake the monarch on his
throne, and prevail over the counsels of the assembled magnates of the
realm, but it was the form in which each shape and quality of humanity,
down even to penury and disease, endeavoured to express its instincts;
and so the blind and the lame, the deaf and dumb, the sick and poor,
made common stock of their privations, and endeavoured by the force of
union to convert weakness into strength," &c.

When the history of clubs is fully written, let us hope that it will be
in another fashion. If it sufficiently abound in details, such a history
would be full of marvels, from the vast influences which it would
describe as arising from time to time by silent obscure growth out of
nothing, as it were. Just look at what clubs have been, and have done; a
mere enumeration is enough to recall the impression. Not to dwell on the
institutions which have made Pall Mall and its neighbourhood a
conglomerate of palaces, or on such lighter affairs as "the
Four-in-Hand," which the railways have left behind, or the "Alpine,"
whose members they carry to the field of their enjoyment: there was the
Mermaid, counting among its members Shakespeare, Raleigh, Beaumont,
Fletcher, and Jonson; then came the King's Head; the October; the
Kit-Cat; the Beef-Steak; the Terrible Calves Head; Johnson's club,
where he had Bozzy, Goldie, Burke, and Reynolds; the Poker, where Hume,
Carlyle, Ferguson, and Adam Smith took their claret.

In these, with all their varied objects - literary, political, or
convivial - the one leading peculiarity was the powerful influence they
exercised on the condition of their times. A certain club there was with
a simple unassuming name, - differing, by the way, only in three letters
from that which would have commemorated the virtues of Bishop Jolly. The
club in question, though nothing in the eye of the country but an easy
knot of gentlemen who assembled for their amusement, cast defiance at a
sovereign prince, and shook the throne and institutions of the greatest
of modern states. But if we want to see the club culminating to its
highest pitch of power, we must go across the water and saturate
ourselves with the horrors of the Jacobin clubs, the Breton, and the
Feuillans. The scenes we will there find stand forth in eternal protest
against Johnson's genial definition in his Dictionary, where he calls a
club "an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions."

The Structure of the Book Clubs.

There has been an addition, by no means contemptible, to the influence
exercised by these institutions on the course of events, in the Book
Clubs, or Printing Clubs as they are otherwise termed, of the present
day. They have within a few years added a department to literature. The
collector who has been a member of several may count their fruit by the
thousand, all ranging in symmetrical and portly volumes. Without
interfering either with the author who seeks in his copyrights the
reward of his genius and labour, or with the publisher who calculates on
a return for his capital, skill, and industry, the book clubs have
ministered to literary wants, which these legitimate sources of supply
have been unable to meet.

I hope no one is capable of reading so far through this book who is so
grossly ignorant as not to know that the Book Clubs are a set of
associations for the purpose of printing and distributing among their
members certain books, calculated to gratify the peculiar taste which
has brought them together and united them into a club. An opportunity
may perhaps be presently taken for indulging in some characteristic
notices of the several clubs, their members, and their acts and
monuments: in the mean time let me say a word on the utilitarian
efficiency of this arrangement - on the blank in the order of terrestrial
things which the Book Club was required to fill, and the manner in which
it has accomplished its function.

There is a class of books of which the production has in this country
always been uphill work; - large solid books, more fitted for authors and
students than for those termed the reading public at large - books which
may hence, in some measure, be termed the raw materials of literature,
rather than literature itself. They are eminently valuable; but, since
it is to the intellectual manufacturer who is to produce an article of
saleable literature that they are valuable, rather than to the general
consumer, they do not secure an extensive sale. Of this kind of
literature the staple materials are old state papers and letters - old
chronicles - specimens of poetic, dramatic, and other literature, more
valuable as vestiges of the style and customs of their age than for
their absolute worth as works of genius - massive volumes of old
divinity - disquisitions on obsolete science, and the like.

It is curious, by the way, that costly books of this sort seem to
succeed better with the French than with us, though we do not generally
give that people credit for excelling us in the outlay of money. Perhaps
it is because they enjoy the British market as well as their own that
they are enabled to excel us; but they certainly do so in the
publication, through private enterprise, of great costly works, having a
sort of national character. The efforts to rival them in this country
have been considerable and meritorious, but in many instances signally
unfortunate. Take, for instance, the noble edition of Hollingshed and
the other chroniclers, published in quarto volumes by the London trade;
the Parliamentary History, in thirty-six volumes, each containing about
as much reading as Gibbon's Decline and Fall; the State Trials; Sadler's
and Thurlow's State Papers; the Harleian Miscellany, and several other
ponderous publications of the same kind. All of them are to be had
cheap, some at just a percentage above the price of waste paper. When an
attempt was made to publish in the English language a really thorough
Biographical Dictionary, an improvement on the French Biographie
Universelle, it stuck in letter A, after the completion of seven dense
octavo volumes - an abortive fragment bearing melancholy testimony to
what such a work ought to be. Publications of this kind have, in several
instances, caused great losses to some, while they have brought
satisfaction to no one concerned in them. A publisher has just the same
distaste as any other ordinary member of the human family to the loss of
five or ten thousand pounds in hard cash. Then, as touching the
purchasers, - no doubt the throwing of a "remnant" on the market may
sometimes bring the book into the possession of one who can put it to
good use, and would have been unable to purchase it at the original
price. But the rich deserve some consideration as well as the poor. It
will be hard to find the man so liberal and benevolent that he will
joyfully see his neighbour obtain for thirty shillings the precise
article for which he has himself paid thirty pounds; nor does there
exist the descendant of Adam who, whatever he may say or pretend, will
take such an antithesis with perfect equanimity. Even the fortunate
purchasers of portions of "the remnant," or "the broken book," as
another pleasant technicality of the trade has it, are not always
absolutely happy in their lot. They have been tempted by sheer cheapness
to admit some bulky and unwieldy articles into their abodes, and they
look askance at the commodity as being rather a sacrifice to mammon than
a monument of good taste.

It has been the object of the machinery here referred to, to limit the
impressions of such works to those who want and can pay for them - an
extremely simple object, as all great ones are. There is, however, a
minute nicety in the adjustment of the machinery, which was not obvious
until it came forth in practice - a nicety without which the whole system
falls to pieces. It was to accomplish this nicety that the principle of
the club was found to be so well adapted. A club is essentially a body
to which more people want admission than can gain it; if it do not
manage to preserve this characteristic, it falls to pieces for want of
pressure from without, like a cask divested of its hoops. To make the
books retain their value, and be an object of desire, it was necessary
that the impressions should be slightly within the natural
circulation - that there should be rather a larger number desirous of
obtaining each volume than the number that could be supplied with it.
The club effected this by its own natural action. So long as there were
candidates for vacancies and the ballot-box went round, so long were the
books printed in demand and valuable to their possessors. If there were
110 or 120 people willing to possess and pay for a certain class of
books, the secret of keeping up the pressure from without and the value
of the books, was to limit the number of members and participators to
100. There is nothing noble or disinterested in this. The arrangement
has no pretension to either of these qualities; nor, when we come to the
great forces which influence the supply and demand of human wants,
whether in the higher or the humbler departments, will we find these
qualities in force, or indeed any other motive than common selfishness.
It is a sufficient vindication of the arrangement that it produced its
effect. If there were ten or twenty disappointed candidates, the
hundred were possessed of the treasures which none could have obtained
but for the restrictive arrangements. Scott used to say that the
Bannatyne Club was the only successful joint-stock company he ever
invested in - and the remark is the key-note of the motives which kept
alive the system that has done so much good to literature.

To understand the nature and services of these valuable institutions, it
is necessary to keep in view the limits within which alone they can be
legitimately worked. They will not serve for the propagation of standard
literature - of the books of established reputation, which are always
selling. These are merchandise, and must follow the law of trade like
other commodities, whether they exist in the form of copyright
monopolies, or are open to all speculators. No kind of co-operation will
bring the volumes into existence so cheaply as the outlay of trade
capital, which is expected to replace itself with a moderate profit
after a quick sale. The perfection of this process is seen in the
production and sale of that book which is ever the surest of a
market - the Bible; and when a printer requires the certain and
instantaneous return of his outlay, that is the shape in which he is
most secure of obtaining it.

On the other hand, the clubs will not avail for ushering into the world
the books of fresh ambitious authors. That paradise of the geniuses, in
which their progeny are to be launched full sail, where they are to
encounter no risks, and draw all the profits without discount or
percentage, as yet exists only in the imagination. It would not work
very satisfactorily to have a committee decreeing the issues, and the
remuneration to be paid to each aspirant - ten thousand copies of
Poppleton's Epic, and a cheque for a thousand pounds handed over out of
the common stock, to begin with - half the issue, and half the
remuneration for the Lyrics of Astyagus, as a less robust and manful
production, but still a pleasant, murmuring, meandering, earnest little
dream-book, fresh with the solemn purpose of solitude and silence. No,
it must be confessed our authors and men of letters would make sad work
of it, if they had the bestowal of the honours and pecuniary rewards of
literature in their hands, whether these were administered by an
intellectual hierarchy or by a collective democracy. Hence the clubs
have wisely confined their operations to books which are not the works
of their members; and to keep clear of all risk of literary rivalries,
they have been almost exclusively devoted to the promulgation of the
works of authors long since dead, whether by printing from original
manuscripts or from rare printed volumes.

It has been pleaded that this machinery might have been rendered
influential for the encouragement of living authorship. It has been,
for instance, observed, with some plausibility, that he who has the
divine fervour of the author in him, will sacrifice all he has to
sacrifice - time, toil, and health - so that he can but secure a hearing
by the world; and institutions of the nature of the book clubs might
afford him this at all events, leaving him to find his way to wealth and
honours, if the sources of these are in him. No doubt the history of
book-publishing shows how small are the immediate inducements and the
well-founded hopes that will set authors in motion, and, indeed, a very
large percentage of valueless literature proves that the barriers
between the author and the world are not very formidable, or become
somehow easily removable. This, in fact, furnishes the answer to the
pleading here alluded to; and it may further be safely said, where the
book demanding an introduction professes to be a work of genius,
addressing itself to all mankind, that if it really be what it
professes, the market will get it. No production of the kind is liable
to be lost to the world.

Here it is plaintively argued by Philemon, that the rewards of genius
are very unequally distributed. Who can deny it? Nothing is distributed
with perfect balance like chemical equivalents in this world, at least
so far as mortal faculties are capable of estimating the elements of
happiness and unhappiness in the lot of our fellow-men; nor can one
imagine that a world, all balanced and squared off to perfection, would
be a very tolerable place to live in. Genius must take its chance, like
all other qualities, and, on the whole, in a civilised country it gets
on pretty well. Is it not something in itself to possess genius? and is
it seemly, or a good example to the uninspired world, that its owner
should deem it rather a misfortune than a blessing because he is not
also surrounded by plush and shoulder-knots? If all geniuses had a
prerogative right to rank and wealth, and all the pomps and vanities of
this wicked world, could we be sure that none but genuine geniuses would
claim them, and that there would be no margin for disputation with
"solemn shams"? Milton's fifteen pounds are often referred to by him who
finds how hard it is to climb, &c.; but we have no "return," as the
blue-books call it, of all the good opportunities afforded to intellects
ambitious of arising as meteors but only showing themselves as farthing
rush-lights. On the other hand, no doubt, the wide fame and the rich
rewards of the popular author are not in every instance an exact measure
of his superiority to the disappointed aspirant. His thousand pounds do
not furnish incontrovertible evidence that he is a hundred times
superior to the drudge who goes over as much work for ten pounds, and
there may possibly be some one making nothing who is superior to both.

Such aberrations are incident to all human affairs; but in those of
literature, as in many others, they are exceptional. Here, as in other
spheres of exertion, merit will in the general case get its own in some
shape. Indeed, there is a very remarkable economic phenomenon, never, as
it occurs to me, fully examined, which renders the superfluous success
of the popular author a sort of insurance fund for enabling the obscure
adventurer to enter the arena of authorship, and show what he is worth.
Political economy has taught us that those old bugbears of the statute
law called forestallers and regraters are eminent benefactors, in as far
as their mercenary instincts enable them to see scarcity from afar, and
induce them to "hold on" precisely so long as it lasts but no longer,
since, if they have stock remaining on hand when abundance returns, they
will be losers. Thus, through the regular course of trade, the surplus
of the period of abundance is distributed over the period of scarcity
with a precision which the genius of a Joseph or a Turgot could not

The phenomenon in the publishing world to which I have alluded has some
resemblance to this, and comes to pass in manner following. The
confirmed popular author whose books are sure to sell is an object of
competition among publishers. If he is absolutely mercenary, he may
stand forth in the public market and commit his works to that one who
will take them on the best terms for the author and the worst for
himself, like the contractor who gives in the lowest estimate in answer
to an advertisement from a public department. Neither undertaking holds
out such chances of gain as independent speculation may open, and thus
there is an inducement to the enterprising publisher to risk his capital
on the doubtful progeny of some author unknown to fame, in the hope that
it may turn out "a hit." Of the number of books deserving a better fate,
as also of the still greater number deserving none better than the fate
they have got, which have thus been published at a dead loss to the
publisher, the annals of bookselling could afford a moving history.

When an author has sold his copyright for a comparative trifle, and the
book turns out a great success, it is of course matter of regret that he
cannot have the cake he has eaten. This is one side of the
balance-sheet, and on the other stands the debit account in the author
who, through a work which proved a dead loss to its publisher, has made
a reputation which has rendered his subsequent books successful, and
made himself fashionable and rich. There have been instances where
publishers who have bought for little the copyright of a successful book

Online LibraryJohn Hill BurtonThe book-hunter : etc. → online text (page 22 of 33)