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?