The Atlantic Bookshelf: A Guide to Good Books
THE week after Christmas, booksellers sit or prop themselves against counters to take the weight off weary feet. The questions, ‘What have you that’s new in fiction?' or ‘What is the very best book you ’ve got on Central Europe?' are no longer pressing. Customers drift in to exchange the Christmas gifts which they have already read, and in this relaxed interval between the dimming of the old year and the stir of the new, while one takes stock of literature’s loss and profit, slowly the belief revives that American readers can pick books to suit themselves if only they will take time — and forget the best-seller list.
A backward glance at 1938 shows what seems to me the fallacy of giving such monotonous publicity to What America Is Reading. Here was a year in which the best sellers rode high (at least a third of them far higher than they deserved) and a year in which there was a pitifully large number of neglected hooks. Reading is essentially a matter of taste, and it seems to me idiotic to try to drum up such uniformity as is represented by the monthly lists of best sellers. If, as I suspect, publishers to-day are applying 80 per cent of their advertising to only 20 per cent of their new titles, this but aggravates a had situation. The result. I believe, is a false emphasis leading inevitably to the constant disappointment of constant readers. When I hear someone say she can’t find anything worth reading I suspect that she has lost her appetite for best sellers and no longer knows how to feed her mind. If people would select their books with as much individuality as they select their food, deserving authors would not go hungry.
Certain beacons light up the months behind us. The award of the Nobel Prize (approximately $38,000 and a handsome medal) to Pearl S. Buck is a fitting salute to the author of The Good Earth and an appetizer for her new novel, The Patriot, which will again have a Chinese setting. Mrs. liuck is the fourth woman to be so honored, the others being Selma Lagerlof (have you read Gosta Berling’?), Grazia Deledda (have you read The Mother?), and Sigrid Undset (have you read Kristin Lanransdatterf).
I know a man who refuses to read any books bv women. They don’t interest him. Women, he argues, can’t write. Well, perhaps they can t — but certainly they try, and in ever-increasing numbers. In the long run the classics give the palm to tHe men. but I wonder if this predominance will prevail in the literature of the twentieth century. W’lmt are the peculiar properties which distinguish the writing of women from that of men. and is there any reason to believe that these feminine characteristics find more scope and more force in the novel than ever they did in poetry and the essay? Or. to put it differently, do the novels of the Nobel Prize winners, do such books as Ethan Frame, by Edith Wharton, or My Antonia, by W ilia (father, proclaim that women are climbing to new literary heights? The contrary-minded might argue that the masculine competition (domination, some would cub it) is not as severe as it once was.
The runaway of 1!)88 was neither a love story nor spoon-fed psychology: it was a small and ingenious contraption for children, Sing-a-Song Player Bool:. The author, Sam See, — call him inventor, — bound up u tiny xylophone together with a tap system which any child could play. And llie publishers sold out. They are reported to have distributed half a million copies before Christmas, and might have doubled the number had the manufacturer been able to turn them out faster than .50,000 a week. But this is Yankee invention, ami we were talking about literature. Of the popular novels I see The 1 earling, by Marjorie Rawlings, as the best and most endearing, and I don’t mean to detract from it when I say that its recognized competitors were below standard. In non-fiction there was no giant the equal, say, of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. but there were at least five uncommonly good books which found popular favor — Listen! the Wind, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Alone, by Admiral Richard E. Byrd; Benjamin Franklin, by Carl Van Doren: With Malice towards Some, by Margaret Halsey; and Philosopher ’s Holiday, by Irwin Edman.
Another highlight, and one which must have gratified every editor, was the award of a gold medal to Van Wyck Brooks for writing The Flowering of New England. Every three years the Limited Editions Club so signalizes a book ‘most likely to attain the stature of a classic.’ However one may quibble with the terms, such recognition is helpful in giving longevity to a book which surely ought to be meaningful to one million Americans. Or have n’t we as many thoughtful readers as that?
The crises in Europe have of course produced some timely and trenchant volumes: I think of Unto Cæsar, by F. A. Voigt; Insanity Fair, by Douglas Reed; and Power, by Bertrand Russell — and for them there has been a rising demand, especially since Munich. That we are more emotional than usual in our reading is evidenced by the decline in sales of Listen! the Wind, which, says a famous bookseller, coincided with the rumor that the Lindberghs were taking up their residence in Berlin. The rumor has since been denied, and I trust the prejudice no longer contaminates a neat and skillful volume. That the printing and reading of new books go forward with vigor in Barcelona is the news brought back by Bennett Cerf, the New York publisher. ‘We’re not Communists here,’
Manzanes the bookseller told him. ‘You’ve been listening to propaganda. My business here stays my own, and I’m selling more books to-day than I did before the war. When there’s paper enough available, editions of eight to twelve thousand are printed.’
No year escapes without its loss, and clearly our greatest in terms of present and future achievement was the death of Thomas Wolfe. Owen Wister, Benjamin N. Cardozo, and Zona Gale were veterans whose work will be remembered with respect. So I come full circle, back to the start of a new season, and firm in my resolution that we must diversify the interest in books in this country. It seems to me a living reproach that books of the quality of In Hazard, by Richard Hughes, The Third Hour, by Geoffrey Household, The Door of Life, by Enid Bagnold, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and This Was a Poet, by George F. Whiclier, should be lost in the clamor for popularity.