The “Dickensian” 19th century is probably where by loose mainstream (not to mention Western, and thus probably predominantly male) definitions, we start to become able to easily recognise cultural and social touchstones as being not too dissimilar to our own.
The everyday stuff; shopping, clothes, streetlamps, street layouts, art galleries, leisure pursuits, newspapers, literature, music etc. could all be considered to be loosely the same. Whilst we might be thrown off by a 15th century Florentine street scene (unless we’ve played a lot of Assassin’s Creed), we can look at a photograph of Christmas shopping in the 1870’s and say “Oh, Oxford Street!” We don’t have any difficulty accepting gaslight gradually morphing into the beginning of municipal electricity usage, the hansom cab, gentlemen in bowler hats, ladies in corsets and crinolines and Jack the Ripper as all having been iconic components of this period.
What’s my name? Yeah, it’s a byword for poverty, cruelty, deprivation and urban horror. That’s how I roll.
A far as successful British 19th Century writers were concerned Charles Dickens was the commercial equivalent of J. K. Rowling. He was huge, without doubt the most popular novelist of his time and place. There are numerous possible reasons for his overwhelming popularity, but one deciding factor would be the broad nature of his readership. He wrote for everyone, and he did it at a shilling a go.
A nicely produced hardback book could cost up to a guinea, for many that would be a luxury too far. Dickens weekly parts were cheap, plentiful and conformed to a standard that had been popular since the end of the 18th century.
Dickens’s most famous works were serialised, most often appearing in 19 weekly parts bound in powder blue decorated paper and accompanied by illustrated engravings. “Great Expectations” on the other hand was serialised in “All The Year Round” from December 1860 under Dickens’ editorship. Thus for those of us whose purses didn’t run to building a library; periodicals and part publications were the way to go for a regular fix of excitement, romance and adventure.
It’s easiest to envision the illustrated parts as episodes in a TV series. Each one was likely to end with a dilemma or some sort of a cliff-hanger and the readership would wait in eager anticipation to discover the next event in the life of Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby. The only people to get their hands on each installment in a timely fashion would be people living in the larger cities. Copies would be distributed from person to person, read around firesides and gossiped about in cafes and railway carriages. Those who were living abroad during the height of British Imperialism could and did wait months for their prized periodicals to arrive and break the dreadful monotony of Company or Crown service overseas. They weren’t just appreciated and read as entertainment; they were shared and communally devoured as a pure and accessible form of escapism.
Think of me as a DVD box set of the entirety of Farscape…
This then appears to be one of the components of a flourishing fandom: A “readership” that stems from many different walks of life coupled with the shared anticipatory experience of waiting. In addition it also needs the kind of social structure that permits a form of leisurely speculation as to motivations and physical and emotional repercussions on the part of the characters. There must be “gatherings” of followers discussing how Nicholas would get Smike free of Dotheboys Hall.
Nowadays the arena of fandom is incontrovertibly the internet…enough emotional energy has been expended on Tumblr to determine any potential for a relationship between Molly Hooper and Irene Adler, or the possible sexuality of Stiles Stilinski (which incidentally is something the show’s writers don’t even seem to see as an issue…crucially it’s the fans who desire and discuss the boundaries and the labels, who take and own the characters and settings) to power a medium sized Chinese city.
In the mid to late 19th century Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook would have been the after supper fireside or a walk in the park or the parlour in the evening…Dickens, Collins and many of his contemporaries ran a regular circuit of talks, lectures, amateur dramatics and informal gatherings, pretty much the pre-internet equivalent of posting spoilers or hosting a podcast.
The emotional connection of the readership to Dickens’ characters is undeniable, and again the pre-eminence of emotional over “intellectual” appeal seems to bind a group of viewers or readers into a fandom. It’s all about the emotional impact of a narrative; identifiable characters with clear cut motivations facing unusual events in a manner with which we can empathise. It’s one thing to make us think, but if you can make us laugh like drains and sob uncontrollably week after week…you have a fandom.
Possibly one of the most familiar examples of this would be the reaction to the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, the final part of which was published (in “Master Humphrey’s Clock”) in February 1841. This from the inestimable Victorian Calendar:
“Countless tears are shed across Britain at the death of dear Little Nell. Her passing takes place in the newly published final chapters of Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. The final scene is as famous – or infamous – as anything in Victorian literature:
‘She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who has lived and suffered death … Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead.’
Dickens had struggled mightily: “I am breaking my heart over this story,” he told a friend. Dozens of readers wrote him begging that Nell be allowed to live. His close friend Macready, England’s greatest actor, after reading the final pages, wrote the author, “I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain.” It seemed everyone was grief-stricken. Lord Jeffrey, one of the nation’s leading judges, was found openly weeping by a friend, “I’m a great goose to have given way so, but I couldn’t help it.” The Irish champion, Daniel O’Connell threw his copy across the room, more in disgust than grief, claiming Dickens “had not sufficient talent to maintain Nell’s adventures… so he killed her.” When English ships reached American ports, people stood on the dock shouting, “Is Little Nell dead?” Sales of Dickens’ struggling journal Master Humphrey’s Clock rose to 100,000, many of them soon tear-stained.
For early Victorians, the open expression of grief was not anything to be ashamed of. By the latter stages of the century, however, the reaction had set in. Fitzjames Stephens wrote that “so many foolish tears had been shed” over Nell.”
“Poor Nell…Too…Many…Feels.” The Editor, London Illustrated News, Feb. 1841
The parallels between reader response here and reader response to the death of Dumbledore (just as an example) aren’t much of a stretch. It’s doubtful that anyone who developed a favourite Dickens’ character ever again rested entirely easy until the last page was turned and the finale reached still breathing. Charles Dickens, Ladies and Gentlemen; The Victorian Joss Whedon.
In 1841 I could have quoted her death scene to any of Mr Dickens’ multitude of readers and would have received a response probably very similar to the one I’d get if I was on Tumblr and said “I am a Leaf on The Wind.”
I would not be popular.
I would get this…The Black Spot of the interwebs,
Next up Sherlock Holmes; the fandom that will not die even if you chuck it off a waterfall…and my problem with the concept of “quality”. Actually my problem with quality should be pretty self-evident, but hey…
Obviously, usual disclaimer…this is all me, nothing to do with my boss or any organisations I may belong to. If you want to be grumpy, feel free to be grumpy at me.
And the house chants on without us…
So where were we?
We’ve established that some people don’t view books as valuable because they’re a little difficult to get your head around. To civilians the reasoning behind why one hundred year old book can be verging on priceless and another hovering just this side of worthless can be obscure, seemingly arbitrary and maddeningly opaque. Even when the rationale is explained it often doesn’t help.
Often what the rare book trade does is take an object with a clearly identifiable function and then deny the object the exercise of its function as a result of financial value. One of the things I hear most often is “If I owned that book I’d be afraid to touch it.” I usually respond to this by pointing out that the book in question is four hundred years old, has survived untold wars, plagues and natural disasters in its journey to our hands and is probably a lot tougher than me…not to mention prettier and more useful.
This strikes people as strange.
Couple this with the fact that many book-dealers have this reputation as being the unholy union of a second hand car salesman, Captain Jack Sparrow and a particularly snotty maître d’ and you’re left with a world that is difficult at best to enter even if you know you want to. If your unfulfilled desires don’t intentionally lead you to Chelsea Antiquarian Book Fair, or down into my basement (I mean that to be much less sinister than it sounds…it has books in it) then the chances of you happening upon this world by accident are pretty slim. It does happen, as a result of unwise present shopping or foolish messing about with a fabled antique puzzle box purchased from a souk in Marrakesh, and the people who come to us in this manner generally stay (We have such sights to show you…). Recently however there have been fewer, and this is a source of concern.
Welcome to this week’s episode of Antiques Roadshow, from the Assembly Rooms, Bath.
The primary concern rattling teacups and knocking over whiskey bottles across all the book multiverse is the threat of encroaching technology.
Far more erudite analyses of our nightmares involving a world of plastic placemats with a bewildering array of buttons can be found elsewhere:
That’s pointing you in the direction of but a few of the various debates, posts and editorials out there.
There’s also this:
Which is quite lovely, although I’m not sure why it has to be presented in the manner of excerpts from Wisconsin Death Trip?
There are clearly a large number of smart people out there worrying about this. I have to admit to not really being one of them; I’m worried about something I consider far more horrifying.
Kindles, Nooks, Kobos etc. are all great ideas. The capacity to carry a thousand books in your pocket is probably some sort of bibliophile utopian ideal.
The ability to read anything that takes your fancy easily and at any time, even when you didn’t know you fancied it or weren’t aware you had the time is a great and wonderful advance in technology and, indeed reading. Couple this with simple human bloody mindedness and there’s a definite future for used, rare, second-hand and antiquarian books. Not the future we previously thought they had before all this tech came along, but a future nevertheless. Vinyl records were supposed to disappear completely with the advent of cds, they haven’t. Horses and canal boats were supposed to disappear from our country with arrival of the railways and cars, they haven’t. There are fewer certainly, and they aren’t the lynchpins of trade or transport any more, but they are still there and still flourishing. Their future changed, it didn’t disappear from the face of time but it became something previously un-anticipated.
It could be that this is our renaissance, a revolution of attitudes and alterations to our basic structure that we get to watch this time. It happened before in the 1450’s (very few members of the ABA were around for that, maybe one or two of the current committee at most); it made a lot of people unhappy and caused a massive ruckus in the publishing and bookselling world. Prior to that the adoption of “codex” format over scrolls caused a lot of academic and professional sneering and you can only imagine the raised eyebrows amongst the makers of bookshelves when people actually possessed enough books to stand them upright rather than have them lying down. That’s just vulgar. In the thirteenth century there were actually other places appearing, threatening to provide education and enlightenment outside of the monasteries! That is not cool! There were probably mummers doing performances of sad Dominicans walking through empty scriptoriums to the sound of mournful gitterns and serpents.
“Did you hear Fra. Bartolomeo has started a Tumblr just to have somewhere to express ALL THE FEELS? *sob*”
These upstart establishments were called universities and as a result of them we were supposed to get easy access to the tools of enlightenment…that and cheap beer and the possibility of meeting really earnest smug people pointing out that they’re in the top five percent of the population and the future voice of politics/maths/art/literature/business etc. before going on to a fruitful career working in places they’d never considered, wearing clothes they’d always sworn they wouldn’t alongside people they’d always professed to despise. Some of them even dated me, which I can promise is nothing anyone sees themselves doing deliberately.
These universities gave rise to other educational establishments, which in turn gave rise to other reactionary emporiums of knowledge. They all until very recently depended upon books for the transmission of their wisdom. They only had access to a finite number of books, books are pricey (as any of the top five percent will text you about from their iPhones), books take up space and there can’t be one for everyone.
With the advent of modern technology the same book can be distributed to a vast multitude of hungry, eager minds looking to change the face of the universe. We hope.
The thing I fear most is not actually that “real” books will diminish and cease to exist.
I’m not afraid of being unemployed, or seeing the rare books world forced to adapt to a changing world. That’s all stuff that is to a greater or lesser extent supposed to happen. It’s part of the deal of working and getting older, like putting on weight and growing unsightly patches of hair and realising that to your spouse you are frequently a bore and that to the rest of your family you are a conduit of spending money at best and an embarrassment the rest of the time. Or not, mileage may vary.
I’m afraid of young people not being able to escape where they started.
If you don’t read books; you are defenceless. If you don’t read books; it is far easier for you to be made a victim.
People can tell you whatever they please, put you wherever they want, convince you it’s what you deserve or need or is the best course of action. They can manipulate and engineer and abuse their power, be they governments, police forces, doctors, educational establishments, parents, priests, popes and prime ministers. If you don’t read all the books, you have no tools to prevent this.
Books are the first weapon to hand, the easiest and cheapest form of self defense and neighbourhood watch. They are the mental equivalent of a half-brick, a pointed stick or a milk bottle full of petrol with a rag in the top. Anyone can get hold of them, arm themselves and use them to change their situation.
This is a thing I believe all the way through me, like a stick of seaside rock, because it is what I did myself. I wasn’t always right, and it certainly didn’t always turn out for the best, but they were my choices. If it hadn’t been for books feeding the need to learn and take control of who and where I was, then they would not have been my choices.
They would have been choices made for me by someone else.
Just think for a second about the multitude of horrors that could occur as a result of that sentence.
Some of them aren’t really horrors, it’s true.
I hated school, that was someone else’s decision, but aside from breeding a lively hatred of some of my peers and a distaste for anything mentioned on a syllabus under the heading “English Literature”, it didn’t kill me or maim me or blight me. Not more than most anyway. I was very lucky.
I went to university and I can’t pretend to have used it as the opportunity I should have. I used it more as a chance to get really drunk and attempt to sleep with girls in Sisters of Mercy t-shirts whilst occasionally writing truly awful fiction and planning the pose I would adopt for the photograph on the back of my first best-selling novel-that-would-change- people’s- lives. That was a choice I made, perhaps not my smartest.
Without all the books, I would not have had the chance to waste those opportunities, if that makes any sense. I would never have got near the school I hated, and I would never have been given access to the university education I squandered. I would never have known that they were options in my life.
I grew up alongside a lot of people who weren’t aware that they had these options and who, for better or worse (horribly frequently for worse) didn’t get any chances to waste. They lived in the same places as me, they had the same or similar families and communities, they started out doing the same jobs. Their arena of experience did not encompass reading books.
This obviously isn’t me suggesting they were stupid, or lesser beings or anything as moronic as that. It’s an awkward and probably unsuccessful attempt to express the heart-breaking knowledge that many of them didn’t end up with the lives they wanted, and that probably their children didn’t (or won’t) either, partially because they had no tools with which to recognise chances.
Nobody taught them that they shouldn’t allow other people to make decisions for them and theirs. Nobody taught them how to recognise that someone else is making choices without their consent.
They hide that stuff in books.
In fact they were mostly taught that they were actively making choices already. They were informed (by a number of sources) to believe that the only choices they had available were shitty ones. The good choices went to someone else in a place they could never reach. They were told that they should make the best of their situation, that really that out of reach option isn’t something they should be wasting their time with. That for reasons of background, nationality, sexuality, colour, religion, relative financial stability or a whole host of other baseless criteria these things weren’t the things for them, they were the things for someone else. My family got told this, I got told this. That is indicative of the kind of caustic, poisonous shite that you end up with in a society where people aren’t encouraged to read and learn under their own power.
You end up with people making choices for others with no knowledge of their circumstances, their motivations or needs.
You end up with a society led by birds talking to fish about how to swim better.
“So then I said ‘Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you matter to me any less’!!” “Jesus Dave, you crack me up you really do! Tell me again about this ‘Soylent Green’ idea?”
You end up with a situation where people have no idea that their options for angry, resentful disagreement extend beyond setting fire to Peckham and nicking stuff from Primark. You end up with large numbers of your population hopelessly marginalised and potentially irretrievably relegated to a despised underclass. You end up with an array of dead ends where the only open routes lead to destinations no right minded person would want or tolerate. You end up with jobs that offer less than benefits. You end up with poor health and lifestyles across a vast section of the population. You end up with anger and frustration and huge vistas of bereft people. You end up with the people in charge telling you that it’s the fault of the last people in charge, and the people at the bottom of the pile telling you that from their perspective it doesn’t make any difference who’s in charge because they never make anything better.
This is not a bleak dystopian future, this is last year. This is last year without books. This is last year without reading. Last year without arming people with the ability to self-educate and change their situations in ways that work and don’t necessarily involve mass destruction.
Now tell me what next year looks like. Tell me what the next decade looks like.
Not everyone will take advantage of the ability to change their circumstance. Not everyone will want or believe in the possibility of change or improvement either for themselves or for others.
Everybody however deserves the opportunity to make their own choice. Books are in many cases the physical embodiment of that opportunity.
“Come with me if you want to live!”
Here are some quotes from very smart people, hidden in books:
“Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.”
“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.”
“The ever more sophisticated weapons piling up in the arsenals of the wealthiest and the mightiest can kill the illiterate, the ill, the poor and the hungry, but they cannot kill ignorance, illness, poverty or hunger.”
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” G.K. Chesterton.
“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.” Neil Gaiman
“In 900 Years of travelling space and time I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.” The Doctor
Alright, that last quote isn’t strictly speaking from a book, but my week isn’t complete without a Dr. Who quote. It illustrates the important point that, in a manner of speaking, this is how books feel about you.
They don’t care if you are rich or poor, black, white, mixed race, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, gay, straight, undecided, indiscriminate or just plain content. They have no interest in the size or shape of your body, your lack of working limbs, life expectancy, family life, prejudices, bigotry, misconceptions, triumphs or regrets. They will offer up what they contain regardless of whether you are happy, miserable, sick, healthy, ecstatic or desperate.
In the thousands of years that we have been gaining, accumulating, transmitting and sharing our knowledge through them, they have always been there for us. They give what they have unconditionally and without judgement. When the people you trust can no longer be trusted, when the ones you love become your enemies, when the ground underfoot is shaky and the sky above looks dark and forbidding there will always be a book with an answer in it somewhere. Even when a book contains something you reject, when it contains information you despise the very fact of its existence has taught you something. You have the choice to take an opposing stance, to decide on the best course of action for you. The book has given you the tools to make your decisions, to stay or to go, to fight or to run, to change or to remain the same.
The trick is that you have to read them. If you don’t, they can’t help.
Right, well, this is going to be partially embarrassing, but I haven’t written up my world beating post on the Olympia Book Fair yet and the luminous Mr. Daniel Northwood did this! Then said I could show other people! Which could be a bad thing.
I said many things over the hour I was filmed. These believe it or not are the sensible ones.