The Peoples Library
[Macmillan, 60• per vol.]
FIFTEEN years ago James Harvey Robinson published The Humanizing of Knowledge. In this book he showed great concern for that section of the public which more than any other stands in want of serious yet readable books on subjects usually dealt with by highbrow writers in a highbrow manner, and therefore quite useless for disseminating knowledge among those who, in any event, read few books.
His pragmatic mind sought a solution, and gave birth to the idea of a series of books, each of twenty to forty thousand words, each to be written in a style designed to engage I tie interest of the average man. He clearly realized that for this purpose ’a new class of writers’ was necessary, and that such writers, of whom there were already a few examples, ‘must be brought together in an effective if informal conspiracy to promote the diffusion of the best knowledge we have of man and his world.'
On the intellectual side, we are told, the Peoples Library, of which the first six volumes are already in print, ‘is in direct line of descent from James Harvey Robinson.’ On the practical side, very important in this instance, we see Charles A. Beard as chairman of a committee, whose other members are George P. Brett, Jr., of the Macmillan Company, Morse A. Cartwright. Director of the American Association for Adult Education, and Lyman Bryson of Columbia University, all conspiring to accomplish the purpose on which Robinson’s heart was so ardently set. Basing their project on research findings of the but lately established Readability Laboratory at Teachers College, Columbia University, the benevolent conspirators made a plan for the Peoples Library, comprising a series of books, each written with a technique decidedly functional— if such a word may be applied to the art of writing — since it demanded three popular and serviceable virtues: lucidity, comprehensibility, and appeal. Yet another virtue must be mentioned, a virtue that belongs to the business of publishing, and that is the price, only GO cents a volume, which renders the books accessible to those unable or unwilling to pay the high prices usually asked for books.
Above all what impresses the critic who has perused the first six volumes — which must be fair samples of the Library as a whole— is that their most effective function is to serve democracy and its ends. They stress admirably the individual, his or her integrity as a personality and as a cooperating unit in the larger community. They teach more often by implication but sometimes by methods which verge on propaganda fa word not to be interpreted here in its more sinister sense, since even the Good Book is a sort of propaganda for God) that we are Americans, that it is good to be an American, that as Americans we must inevitably respect the dignity of life and of person, and that as Americans we cannot possibly be totalitarian — that is, anti-Americans.
The titles of the books in themselves suggest the spirit in which they were conceived. Let Me Think, by H. A. Overstreet, for example, does handsomely remind us that we live in a land in which it is no crime to think. Such being the case, I may even be allowed to express the opinion that, considering his title, Mr. Overstreet has committed a tactical mistake in dedicating his book to his wife, ‘whose hand and mind have been at work on so many pages of this book that I call the book my own only because she insists. In any event. Let, Me Think is exactly what it aims to be, a sort of popular exposition of Emerson’s ‘He yourself.’
A salutary piece of exposition is Lyman Bryson’sWhich Way America?— subtitled ‘Communism. Fascism, Democracy’—the idea of which is cleverly interpreted by the jacket, showing an American, silent, his arms behind him. beset by a Comrade whispering in his right ear and a Nazi in his leit.
Here Comes Labor, by Chester M. Wright, reveals that the workers have a powerful voice in the counsels of the nation. It tells how the unions work, what they have so far gained, and what they have yet to face. Who Are These Americans? by Paul B. Sears, speaks for itself. In brief, it explains who we are, what we are, how we developed, in what ways we are different from other peoples, and what we stand for. Nor does Lydia Powel’sThe Attractive Home need any explanation.
I have left myself to speak last of Allan Seager’sThey Worked for a Better World, if only because it is the most successful of the six volumes. This is perhaps to be explained by the fact that Mr. Seager’s is a creative mind. He is an artist in the short story, and he has been able to use his imaginative faculty in writing this little book about five famous Americans: Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, Emerson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Edward Bellamy. He writes about these persons of our democracy with knowledge, insight, and feeling, and he does it in as simple language as this series of popular books demands.