Books for the Sedentary
I REMEMBER seeing it carefully argued somewhere, not long since, that there is no such thing as The Reading Public. A reader, for all we know, is nothing but a fellow who can decipher cold print — time-tables and almanacs and newspapers, and such-like illiterary wares.
There are publics and publics. Some of them, gentle reader, you have never heard of — and very many of them, polite author, have never heard of you! The millions who think literature is what you find in the Sunday Supplement don’t dream of you. They have no inkling of the existence of those audiences, more or less fit and relatively few, which scale up from them, step by step, to the cloud-wrapped tip of the pyramid where dwell the self-elect. It is queer that nobody has thought to reduce the thing to a chart. What are our degree-hunters about? Of course, qualities of temperament ought to be taken into account, as well as matters of mind and taste. There would be a lot of overlapping. Questions of area and density would have to be reckoned with — all pretty matter, I should say, for the doctoralminded to look into.
The sedentary public, for instance, — did it ever occur to you that there is such a constituency? And do you think it a simple one? Just reflect upon how many kinds of sedentariness there are, and how many different reasons for it. Indolence is sedentary in its own right, but ill-health and old age and preoccupation have nothing to say about it.
Preoccupation! — that is surely the most commiserable of all reasons for ‘staying sot.’ Think what the schoolkeepers have to answer for — thrusting it upon us in our best years. Schoolhours are a curse, not because of the things we have to do in them, but because of the things we can’t do at the same time. No fellow would mind his three R’s if he could master them while he was building a dam or flying a kite. And alas, life takes the thing up where the pedagogue drops it! Strive as we may, we can’t get away from this law of inhibition. We can’t win our case in court and be blazing a trail through the wilderness. We can’t land our coveted muscalonge from some far Northern riffle with our feet on a desk in Wall Street — nor, for that matter, can we shoot our woodchuck with our legs behind the counter in Tarryville Centre. We are all in the same pickle, we slaves of the swivel-chair and the noon-hour.
The noon-hour — there is a bit of leeway here, to be sure. Business is understood to be transactable over the auxiliary cordial and the supplementary cigar. For the rest, we have our Saturday afternoons and our Sundays, and our holidays and our hoarded two weeks in or about the heated term. But the chances are rather against us. Mood and opportunity do not always coincide; the weather has us at its mercy; at best we drag a lengthening chain. Hang back as we may, the clock slips round, the good hour passes, and so back to the absurd perch of the only animal that sits for a living.
Ah, sad, anæmic parasites of desk and till, doomed to squat perpetually, like Satan at the ear of Eve — for you what hope, what solace? Even that beaming Sunday nose, trophy of some sort of contact with real out-of-doors, — go to, we know how you won it, in a camp-chair on the upper deck, down the bay. Or was it on yonder blaspheming bleacher, where for an hour or two you stared at eighteen men really laboring, for a time, with their muscles erect, as God made them? No, you can’t fool people of discernment with that sort of false blazon. You are fated to take your pleasures, like your profits, with knees at waistlevel. Seventeen of your eighteen waking hours you shall be four feet high, and helpless in the presence of your enemy (if you have gumption enough to possess one). A few years of huddling and crouching have adequately unfitted your bones and joints for their natural duties. Your life is made up of shufflings, as brief as possible, from seat to seat. You make twenty steps of it from breakfast-table to droning trolley, another twenty to your elevator, another five to that swiveled abomination which is your home, — and heave a sigh of relief that the journey is done with!
But it is not with regard to you, after all, that the voice of the commentator may permit itself to grow sharp. What chance have you had? You started wrong, in some city slum, or some purlieu of fashion; and never knew what it was to stretch a muscle, or a bloodvessel. There is infinitely more to be said for you than for some others among the inglorious ranks of the sedentary. I mean, in particular, the ex-athlete. Only a few years ago he was the glory of the gridiron or the diamond. He did not know what it was to be bankrupt of breath or lax of muscle. And now he permits himself to be fat and flaccid and inert and, for the most part, shameless. You, shop-bred sir, will outlast him; and serve him right! Your blood has never thrilled with health and the mere lust of action; and, therefore, you are far less likely than he to seek the false activity of the toofrequent cocktail and the endless cigarette. If his exercise is taken vicariously, it is honest exercise of its sort. The ball game supplies part of it, the moving-picture show, and the Wild West show, and the varied activities of refined vaudeville, all make their contributions.
And then there are the books, — books about war, exploration, adventure, for its own sake, — a whole library for the sedentary. Treasure Island was invented for them, and In Darkest Africa, and Farthest North, and all the mass of frontier literature and seastory. They supply the chief market, too, we suppose, for the increasing volume of mere out-of-door books, books like Mr. Stewart Edward White’s, for example, or David Grayson’s, or John Muir’s. For them the fresh-air magazine and the sporting catalogue, the tales of camping and fishing, mountainclimbing and arctic hunting. If the pale blood of anæmic females is chiefly stirred by tales of romantic love, by the sweet pretty style of novel, their male analogues find their stimulus in feats of physical daring or endurance, under the primitive conditions of the wilderness. Hence a paradox: if the sedentary reader were to vanish from the globe, lifted, let us say, to higher seats, the bottom would drop out of the market for what in the dialect of the book-mart we should call muscle-andozone literature.