Sorry, I meant to review that other book… but… I didn’t. Next week, promise! Instead, I was off having fun in London for a couple of days, including several bloggers along the way – I’ll tell you all about that (and the books I got!) soon. Tonight I thought I’d share an article I read in the Book Society News. Part of my time in London was spent in the British Library, reading old copies of this newsletter for the biggest book-of-the-month style club in the UK. The copies I read were from 1939 and 1940, and this piece by ‘A.B.’ (Arnold Bennett?) came from October 1939 – the first issue after the Second World War had been declared. I know I am in a privileged position, having access to these sorts of gems, so I wanted to share it with you all:
Books will go on. They are needed more than ever in wartime; and they are not rationed. Thus far, all the news has been most of the reading, but before long people will turn to books as the best comfort, the greatest recreation in an anxious, darkened world. In the last war it happened during 1915, and by the middle of 1916 more books were being bought than in any summer of Edward peace.
This time the urge to read often will come earlier. The present war is a grim, not to say drab affair. We have no false exaltation; the prevailing mood is that of 1917 rather than 1914; and much beyond our evenings has been blacked out. The one always reliable refuge comes from access to what the Poet Laureate writing to The Times calls “the treasury of the universe of the mind.” Books may become more necessary than gas-masks.
If history is a guide, the supply of good literature will keep pace with the demand. It was in the worst years of the war with Napoleon that Jane Austen, a quiet spinster in Bath, wrote Pride and Prejudice, and that Walter Scott, bearing a load of debt, wrote Rob Roy. Flaubert, Maupassant and others were in full creation while the Prussians were battering at France’s Second Empire. And in 1914-18 some of the best work by Kipling, Conrad, Galsworthy, Wells, Maugham and Walpole arrived.
So the Book Society, also, will go on. Already we have in view two exceptional new books for the months ahead, and there are plenty of alternatives if you prefer them. We shall vary our recommended lists between books that reveal the strange times we live in and literature that bridges the gulf between to-day’s madness and the sanity that lives in fine imagination.
Consider, meanwhile, what one copy of a good new book can achieve in wartime, even though restrictions multiply and we are taxed beyond a millionaire’s worst fears. The book costs less than a few sandbags at the profiteers’ price, or a bottle of evaporating scent, or a stall in the peace-time theatre. Yet it can keep boredom at bay for days and fill inactive evenings with pleasure, stimulation, forgetfulness of the present. In any house it can do this for several readers in succession; and thereafter, it can be kept for an encore while serving as a decoration. Or it can be sent or lent to do as much for those on national service, among whom the need for books is even more urgent.