The Power of Books

H. M. TOMLINSONwas born close to the London Docks with shipping in his blood. But when he went to sea, it was not before the mast but as a writer. The Sea and the Jungle, which resulted from his maiden voyage to South America, ranks among the finest prose of our time. It was followed by Old Junk (papers of seafaring and of his work as a war correspondent in France), by London River, Gallions Reach, and by essays which are unrivaled for their Elizabethan beauty and the power of indignation they impart to the reader.



THE common reader, who is of paramount commercial importance, is asking today for something more exciting than wisdom. Gross appetite, sprawling haste, and gaudy ostentation require stimulation that wisdom cannot give. Life is more hurried than ever, but has lost its sense of direction and forgotten its traditional values, excepting the certitude of what, without irony, we call progress. I have heard very belatedly of the death of John Livingston Lowes. I saw Lowes on Egdon Heath one fine summer’s day, long ago. He was there to speak at the unveiling of a memorial to Thomas Hardy; an American tribute, and close to the poet’s birthplace on the verge of the heather and pines. That little Harvard professor, so mild and gentle, and a stranger, diminished to insignificance by sky and horizon, had a crowd of local people about him. They did not know who he was; and they are jealous folk; it is not safe to speak confidently of Dorset when they are about; they have been there a long time.

I had expected to see there also a sprinkling of British writers, but I noticed only Llewelyn Powys, who lived near. This surprised me because, apart from an occasion in Hardy’s honor, courtesy was suggested for a distinguished guest. Lowes to me, anyhow, was one of America’s wisest men of letters. I had met him at Harvard before that day, and soon felt respect and deference. That it surprised me to find only local folk present on an unusually worthy occasion was because, all that time ago, I was still liable to resentment when notable knowledge, understanding, and kindliness did not arouse the attention of those we call leaders of public opinion; today I should be surprised to see those leaders present when life and letters were being celebrated.

As Lowes stood by that obelisk I was glad the job was his, and not mine. What, talk on Egdon of the author of The Dynasts, to listeners who had known the heath all their lives, and had conversed with the old poet at a Dorchester street corner on market day, while wary lest passing red cattle shouldered too near? But I have never heard an address at once so easy, full, and modest. He was aware of more in Hardy than some of us knew was there; and as to Wessex, that could have been his own place. Wessex was of all the world. Lowes was quite at home. No English critic could have accomplished the matter so well, except Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. If the shade of Hardy was at the back of that gathering, eyes bent sadly to the turf while listening, he must have been satisfied that his fellow men were less unaware and forgetful than he had supposed.

Lowes died while the uproar of peace following that of the bombs took attention from the passing of a gentleman and scholar. The loss of a civilizing influence will not be felt while we are preoccupied with the charming violence of atomic disruption. It seems that even his neighbors were so little affected that not one of them thought of informing London. I heard that he had gone only because I chanced to meet his London publisher, and asked about him. The fact that he had disappeared without remark made that London street even dingier than it was, and the more so since Siegfried Sassoon, who was with me, had been lamenting just before to the same publisher that so gallant a poet as George Meredith had been lost in the obscurity which men at times prefer to day. All I could do was to go home, and restore a measure of confidence with some of Lowes’s good work. He was a delightful essayist, and his words kindled. He was also one of the little group of American scholars to which an Englishman must turn when a better light is wanted on Chaucer.

For what are the agreements that bind my country to America? Who trusts to the sealing wax used by negotiators to hold together the difference in opposing national ideas, and in warlike commerce? Our two communities, during these high debates, look on, and say nothing, though there is a bare hope that common sense warns us that we are being beguiled once more by the deep and solemn sounds of fiddle-faddle. The right bonds are unsubstantial, and would not be more authentic with the seal of an officer of state. They are permanent. Such an officer is usually too busy, for other motives drive him, to be aware that what is common between Massachusetts and Middlesex is the like interest of men, wherever on earth they are, when the implications of such a book as Tolstoi’s War and Peace are accepted.

Wherever men are, they respond to their own sort. That is our chief security. Chehov and Whitman would have agreed with each other, however divergent the material interests of Washington and Moscow. There are Britishers who will never spend a week on the Concord and Merrimack rivers, but they can go there, at will, afloat on a current not dependent on the seasons. These are the universal bonds of men of good will. They are as old as thought. Rightness is exempt from the difficulties of intrigue; the trouble with it is that it is not always as easy to quote as a rate of exchange. Though we have been assured that in the beginning was the creative word, even now its value is as baffling to exact description as the innocent appeal of a child, or as faith in a moral order. How shall we define the use of literature? What, after all, is the use of books?


I SUPPOSE that in the ordinary sense of use, an application to a purpose, they are of no use. In that they have the distinction of the Beatitudes; we can get along without them. There are books for use, dictionaries, directories, account books, textbooks, and scientific manuals, and so on, all as necessary as the morning milk and the automobile. But we can manage without Shakespeare. Hours given to the masterpieces will not get a reader nearer one good breakfast; Homer is not in the same class as books for technical colleges, which lead to success proper; students in those colleges are not expected to have heard of John Livingston Lowes.

There are more than a few practical people, who know what’s what and how to get it — and as a rule do get it — who declare that time given to poetry is time spoiled; though it is appallingly evident that the practical fellows, the specialists who have studied reality, and are sure they know how to manage it, have made so unholy a tangle of our affairs that we must wonder, in desperate moments, whether it is possible to invent a new creative word to put order into chaos. Shall we ever get out of this muddle, if for salvation we use only the ideas and the instruments which brought it about? Can our daily scene ever be better than the people in it? It must remain what it is, and that means it must grow worse, until prevailing ideals fade before the incoming of a better light.

We have to remember, for instance, that art and letters, once of first consequence in a civilized community, have sunk to the level of intricate plays for intellectual circles. We might have expected that lapse. When religion goes, out goes art. When there is no faith except in material power, how raise a joyous song about it? Once it was Athens and Bethlehem; today it is the machine shop. Our dire need is for grace to save us from a general preoccupation with mechanics, with immense speedy things, with marvelous enormities, with nuclear fission and its dismaying purport; this latest desire of mankind to rise nearer the moon, and even to attain complete lunacy.

We have heard, till we are weary of hearing it, that this is the Age of Science. Yes, it is. We know it. Air-raid shelters and gas masks for infants did not come like the flowers in spring; they developed as the thoughts of man progressed. This scientific age began, we may say roughly, when, with the Industrial Revolution and the inventions that mechanized human effort, reason advised us, at the same time, on all the new evidence at its disposal, that the universe itself is a mechanistic affair; a series of cosmic accidents chanced to bring about things as they are, and that means, of course, we are under no obligation to any superior authority, save the State. All we have to do is to survive, as the fittest to survive; and if not thus qualified so much the worse for us. The only imperative necessity men need acknowledge is circumstance. If they want to get along nicely, then make the most of circumstance, while taking precautions to keep out of the way of the police.

Now, that is the prevailing anarchy we should repel, for it is horrible, but it has easy and neighborly acceptance; statesmen, if with a sigh, regard it as the only way of life that may be followed profitably. I myself admit that the mystery of existence is impenetrable; still, if selected evidence, by reason and sound logic, only guide me to vacuity and drop me into the bottomless blue, then give me fairy tales instead. The old fables are no more fabulous than much else that science orders us to accept. As a shameless romantic I prefer the legend of the star, the shepherds and the wise men — for at least it is a beautiful story — to the blind movements of futility that afford no joy, and are unlit by glory, except that of high explosives.

I need not say I am not decrying science; certainly it would not matter if I were. I myself have had training in science, and relished it, and I still read more of it than of fiction. What people mean by science, as a rule, is manipulation, pulling things about to find how they are made, and to what use they can be put. The modern mind is concerned merely with tools and instruments, with ways and means, not with ends; as if, having attained terrifying power and speed, we need not pause to choose a destination, nor worry over the fact that the heedless engine may have perversity in it, and project us down a steep place and thus finish our avid curiosity and ingenious experiments.

Choice of purpose is paramount; we should find the means after we have decided where we had better go. The physicists themselves were distressed to learn that the outcome of their clever and aimless probing into the nature of matter was not only the obliteration of several populous cities at a blow, but was also a threat to man’s continued existence in ordered communities. So to what end now is directed our cunning manipulation of matter? Are our statesmen, with opportunism as their only code of manners, to be trusted with powers of destruction that would have frightened Lucifer? The technicians who predict that soon they will be flying to the moon do not explain that they trust to see there, with an eye more satisfied than it would be on earth, the will of God. It seems to me that if the conclusion to a perfectly rational argument be misery and death, then, however wonderful the discoveries in the laboratories, increase of knowledge means only the spread of a repulsive disease in the mind. It is better to be ignorant than to put knowledge to an obscene use.


THE question for good readers is one with which scientific research has no concern. Experimental physics is without a moral imperative; and in other human affairs, despite the decline in church membership, it is not entirely forgotten that wrong is not right. Or you can say, if you like, there is a preference, still not rare, for comeliness, seemliness, the Golden Rule; for something not ourselves that makes for rightness, though that have no better warrant than the long experience of mankind in tribulation.

Books may have no use, but they have good in them. There is no use in the happiness of a child, but we like it. By books I mean the words that quicken with the sense that we are of the family, of fellowship under the remote and apparently alien stars. There is a common weal. For my part, I think as readers we should be loyal, and should affirm, against the logic of material power, and undismayed by the mystery of the universe: In the beginning was the Word; beyond the infinite and awful show of things, that. This mystery can be brought a trifle within the bounds of experience, for do we not know there is no end to the surprises the alphabet will bring to pass, if mixed with discretion and read with delight? The spirit of man is of first importance to men, for it conjures up the world we must live in; and we know that words can change that spirit, to give it a new direction. We have witnessed this. Words can bring Pandemonium about us, a not infrequent phenomenon, but they can also lift into life and loveliness. Something is to be said for immortality, when words uttered ages ago by a nameless poet in exile can bring about a stirring in the valley of dry bones. Keats spoke for every man when, on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, he said he felt like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken. The reader of a book may further the creation of its writer. Whatever fame may be a poet’s, his part is to serve, out of a faith in a light that is not, but may come. Without his reader he would be in the dark. There is no light, it cannot be seen, unless it falls on an object. It takes two to make a book, the poet and whoever responds in a like way. The power of art, as of religion, is to bring communion of the spirit.

At times we drop a book, with emphasis, as though it were a dismal offense. Reading not only quickens, but it is much more than the fun of Sam Weller, Huck Finn, and Mr. Polly. It goes deeper than the awe felt when reading an astronomer on the incalculable remoteness in space of immeasurable suns. That last fact alone should reduce us to a point of no importance, yet it is curious that through all our reading an impression deepens of personal responsibility, and an imperative responsibility. Why? Nobody knows. Perhaps it arises merely in the combativeness and vanity of human nature. I have never seen a satisfactory answer to the riddle, but it is certain that a sense of duty is understood, and that in loneliness it will resist the police of the most unappeasable of dictators.

One must say that it is remarkable — comical if you like — that the trifling creature who looks up to the splendor of midnight, and is disturbed, but speechless, and cannot make it out, and never will, should be so certain of law over all that he is ready to give his life in its support; as if the heavens would fall if he fell. I cannot say that a purposive creation is in the least upset if he should fail it; yet truth and beauty, somehow involved in it all, depend to a degree, without question, on his loyalty. To accept personal responsibility, ignoring the superstition of a meaningless concourse of atoms, seems to be the only way to make sense of life; otherwise we might as well hand it over to the Hitlers and have done with it. If we are to go on, we must have a satisfactory incentive.

Because of a feeling no more rational than that, if we fancy nihilism in a book, and frequently it is there, these days; or witty derision of those kindly relations which hold society together; or mockery of fellowship, which is atheism up to date; if on the printed page there is disfigurement of human dignity and worth, a sinister insistence on squalor and ugliness as most of the truth about men and women, then regard for a high tradition is outraged. As critics of letters we have learned enough to recognize, in gaiety, what goes into the dustbin. QuillerCouch once said that if a reader had absorbed one great poem into his system then he could stand with the dons. And it has seemed to me that if a reader once ventured, say into Arabia Deserta with Doughty, became lost in that expanse of burning sand, climbed splintery volcanic rocks massed in Doughty’s archaic prose; smelled goats and aromatic herbs and a tent’s interior at sunset, fearing the while the sun-struck religious fanatics with whom he had to mix, while Doughty never mollified them with any abatement of his own implacable conviction, then when that reader reached the sea again, end of volume two — praise be to Allah — he had been through an experience, and gained a knowledge of the values words can convey, beyond what tuition at a seat of learning can ever accomplish.


IF WE cannot speak of the use of books, in application to the world as it is, we can of their virtue. The use of atomic energy is talked about wherever men meet, but with what we have learned of that energy, so far, the general discussion does nothing to lift our hearts with a promise of life more abundant. There, in that contrast, is the curse in our present attitude to life. We certainly have faith in the latest textbook that the power we rely upon can remove mountains, for we have seen it done; we see, therefore, no need to reflect that never before in history have men known so many facts about this mysterious universe as they know now, nor so little what to do with them; never such an unquestioned belief in science, nor so empty a care for the value of life and personality.

It is supposed that the power knowledge bestows is good in itself, but there is hardly the beginning of an idea in our populous streets that the use of knowledge implies penalties, to be ignored at the peril of society. There is more in the ancient fables of what happened to Prometheus and to Lucifer, as the outcome of venturous ambition and pride, than in all the formulas in which our faith rests for the continuous turning of the wheels. Poetry, whatever its uselessness, has never caused a war, if it has never brought about a railway track. It has never brought down a city, caused a financial crash, raised the rent, nor the price of the loaf. But its irrelevant value has steadied the soul of many a young soldier when beset by the foulness brought about by calculated folly, and by the instruments of technology so hard to understand that few of us can make head or tail of it; we can but cower underground, as many of us have been doing, and trust this will soon pass. Yet the pride shown in the technical achievements that appear to be more than a statesman anywhere knows how to control is as haughty as Lucifer’s before he lost his eminence.

That was very noticeable, when eminent physicists were explaining, after Hiroshima, how superior to all other employments was that of the highpriests of science; a superiority not to be found in Moses, Shakespeare, Titian, Handel, nor even in St. Paul, though the Apostle to the Gentiles was certainly a fairly magisterial person. The published article of one famous fellow of the Royal Society made a reader I know feel only half-witted, though he had not known it till his attention was drawn to it scientifically. It occurred to me, as I read it, that if a bishop had thus spoken to the humble, then he would have been marked as a self-righteous prig; but one must not entertain such a thought of a great scientist. One may mock as superstitious nonsense the humility men feel before the wonder of existence, but to laugh at the solemnity of the new mysticism of the laboratory — no, we have yet to reach that healthy skepticism. There is a long way to go yet.

I read recently in a volume of letters one in which the writer had seen “London’s guilty towers quaking, the Monument shaking as with an ague fit.” It seems this spectacle came of another invention, and the writer was anxious. Could anything be done? He thought not. “Alas,” he exclaims, “can we ring the bells backward? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize, and then burn the world? There is a march of science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?”

Is that about recent happenings in England? Is Hitler at work? One might think so, but it was written by Charles Lamb to his friend Mr. Dyer in 1830. The agricultural laborers, offended by much, were burning farm buildings with the new phosphorous match, and one great fire was reflected in London.

If a bee is in my bonnet, it must be a long-lived little thing, for it bothered Lamb more than a century ago. Another authority had better speak; and he says: “The lessening of faith in institutional religion, which has accompanied the strides made in the technical sciences, has effected great changes in the condition of life. It has also enhanced the prestige of the technologist out of all proportion to the intellectual effort expended on the acquisition of his skill. Moreover, the manifold applications of modern science have placed instruments of power in the hands of men who are not necessarily qualified by character to be entrusted with their use.”

That appears to be the same tale as Lamb’s; it has the same purport. It was taken from a recent Literary Supplement of the London Times. Our boys have learned to fly; not only a few farm buildings but a whole city with its people disappears when a youth presses a button. Nobody, however, has yet reported a cautionary word out of the blue; perhaps we are supposed to know the word, for it has already been given; but it seems we have forgotten it, in a new acceptance of doom as the human lot. Anyhow, no sense can be made of what is going on in the world. It is contrary to all the lore of mankind. It is knowledge and logic in a madhouse. Every community on earth is now wide open to the emissaries of the infernal. The polar regions can be visited in a brief flight. No place is so secreted that it is inviolable to the worst that men can do; the worst is possible everywhere. Our eyes now can see miles through fog, and our ears pick up echoes from the sea floor. Converse across the oceans is as ordinary as teatime; and so on. But there isn’t enough to eat. Myriads of our fellows are starving; and fear governs us. All the resources of science and organization cannot cope with iho want and misery that new knowledge has brought about. How very clever! But how like imbecility!


STILL, as Charles Lamb lamented, we cannot ring the bells backward; no drums can beat the retreat of knowledge; we shall have to wait for the last trump for that. So what is to be done, in the meantime? It is not the marvelous machines that are important, but men and women, and their content with sun and rain; and if the inventions to increase power, undirected by good manners, spoil for them the only earth they have, then power gained but adds to the thousand different ills which are the heritage of flesh. Our choice today is a straight one between Ariel and Caliban; and it is wasting more time to reason over that. Reason takes us but a short distance, and then leaves us in the air. The instrument which the intellect has developed for searching out the truth of things is perfect, in its way; yet, as we have witnessed in horror, it can arrive at perfectly logical conclusions that are simply disastrous nonsense, and a threat to homes and gardens everywhere.

We do not yet see, in our dismay at the prospect before us, that reality, the appearance of things, the look of a city, is but the shadow of men’s commonest thoughts. Why not change our minds, and change our world? It is not the continued progress and advantage of science and its engines that should give us the least hesitation, while we decide. In all the world, there is nothing more important than human relations. It is no good being rational about that. There is nothing rational in affection. There is knowledge more profound than the textbooks and manuals figure for our use, and the children know it when they read — let us have a simple instance — The Wind in the Willows, and call the book lovely. They have found the word for it. But the wisdom in their innocent exclamation of approval is intellectually invalid and irrational. It cannot be proved, except by comeliness in a way of living.

It belongs to those verities which Euclid overlooked. Its value is not in any recommended textbook. It cannot be reached by an extension of mathematics. Einstein’s fiddle might get nearer to it than his arithmetic. It is like the lilies of the field, once pointed to for our observation; a triviality of the wayside disregarded in our admiration of conventional glory. Yet without it the churches could all shut, and we should have to take our world as past redemption, chaos still, never informed by a word to give it seemliness and purpose. We have read that it was once ordered, “Let there be light.” If we cannot accept that, what shall we accept? Shall we say darkness is the primary principle, uncreate, eternal, and absolute? That truth and beauty are but consoling illusions?

Let us continue to doubt there is intention in existence, if we must, but at least let us regard the majesty of the Parthenon, and what that silently expresses, even in ruin; and the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, all useless, proving only an exaltation of spirit, the sign of which remains, though the society from which the aspiration arose is dust; and Homer and the poets, and the quick and vivid abundance of Dickens; and the music which can free daily fret, and transfigure the day. We could regard human nature itself, that mark of the cynics, which we are assured will never change; but don’t we remember, for it is not so long ago, that selfinterest, said to be the prime motive of men, was clean forgotten? Were not personal ambition and the promise of the future abandoned? Life itself was surrendered, and for no more than the idea of service. All went without argument. It was not a matter for the head, that decision. Reason had decided this matter of a right relationship between man and man near the beginning of history, for the sake of peace; and the rest was instinct. There are books in nearly every house in America and England which, have words in a few verses, a page or two, of more lasting value than is in all the reports that issue from the conferences of the great and important.