George Orwell, Bookshop memories

I do like to read a bit of Orwell every now and then – and for that reason, though I have other books of his to read in my TBR pile, I recently bought his essay collection, Books v. cigarettes, in Penguin’s delightful Great Ideas series. I blogged about the first essay a couple of months ago. Tonight I decided to read the second essay, “Bookshop memories”, in which he draws on his experience of working in a second-hand bookshop. It was published in 1936.

There’s a nice little Wikipedia article about the essay, giving the background to his writing it and a brief summary of its content, so I won’t repeat all that again here. Rather, I’ll just comment on a couple of observations he makes that tickled my fancy, and these relate to one of the sidelines of the bookshop: its lending library. He says that in a lending library “you see people’s real tastes and not their pretended (my emphasis) ones, and so, he notes that:

  • “classical English novelists have dropped out of favour. It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen*, Trollope etc into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out”. Dickens, he says, “is one of those authors people are ‘always meaning to read'”
  • there is a growing unpopularity of American books (but he doesn’t give any reason for this)
  • people don’t like short stories because, for some, “it is too much fag to get used to a new set of characters with every story”. Orwell says on this one that the blame lies as much with the writers as the readers: “Most modern short stories, English and American”, he says, “are utterly lifeless and worthless”. Those that “are stories”, such as by D.H. Lawrence, are, he says, “popular enough”.

I don’t think the second point is true today (at least in Australia), but I suspect that the first and third still have some credence. Again and again I hear in bookgroups, “let’s not do a classic” and “I don’t like short stories”. Of course, there are exceptions (my bookgroup, for example, likes to do a classic a year!) but I think the rule still applies. Will it be ever thus?

* Have you noticed how Jane Austen is more often than not referred to with both her names while the fellas often aren’t? We comfortably talk about Shakespeare, Dickens, and Wordsworth, but far less so of Austen. Chivalry? Sexism? Odd isn’t it?

11 thoughts on “George Orwell, Bookshop memories

  1. Alas, I think it is true that most people don’t read the classics – and whereas our generation at least read some of them at school, today they have been jettisoned in favour of ‘relevance’.
    I started reading the classics when I was a teenager. My grandmother sent us a box of books from England – a complete set of Dickens and a representative sample of The Big Names: Austen, Bronte, Thackeray etc. I devoured them all, and then went off to the library to find other titles by the authors I liked (which was nearly all of them). I read almost nothing of contemporary literature then, which might account for me not knowing any swear words until I was about 18 LOL!

    • LOL Lisa … I read a mix of classics and contemporary from my early teen years…but I too was pretty hopeless on sear words. The contemporaries I read were clearly “high class”!!

  2. Sadly I fall into the vast hordes who are “always meaning to read” Dickens. Indeed Bleak House is the best book that I’ve half-read, twice. I wish I did have a better grounding in the Classics. But I am trying to make up for it now. I struggle trying to keep up with my library’s Classics book group, and am currently reading Madam Bovary (why did no one tell me it was very enjoyable?). And of course I batted my way through most of Jane, well except Sense and Sensibility, which I will have to get to one of these days.
    I do mean to read Orwell too. But alack and alas, time is always the enemy of such plans. I’m glad you’re reading it for me.
    I haven’t tried any DH Lawrence since I was in high school, but have no idea why it should be “popular enough”. I have this feeling of dread that one time I will have to try and read him as an adult.

    • LOL too Louise. Must admit I feel I’ve done DH Lawrence! I had my phase and read a few novels and even bought a collection of his poetry but don’t actually recollect his short stories. I have to say that I am pretty lacking in the French and Russian classics department. Have only read a smattering. Something I’d like to redress.

  3. Then, too, how often you hear Austen being referred to simply as Jane as did Louise – and we all know to whom she is referring. I hope we are not being too familiar – after all, if her own time she would be at least ‘Miss Jane’, Cassandra only being entitled to ‘Miss Austen’.

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  7. That reluctance to read the classics is a bit sobering. I somehow failed to read Richardson’s Clarissa during our first lockdown. I read a lot of books,including many long ones, but not Clarissa and I fear I,will never get such a chance again!

    • Nice to hear from you again Ian. I’ve been hoping you’re well. I’ve only read Richardson’s Pamela, I must say.

      I won’t wish another lockdown on us all to help you, I’m afraid! It sounds like you used your time more fruitfully than I manage to, even if you didn’t read Clarissa.

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