Friday, July 13, 2012


Dead, All Dead

George Orwell (1903-1950), Keep the Aspidistra Flying, chapter 1:
In all book-shops there goes on a savage Darwinian struggle in which the works of living men gravitate to eye-level and the works of dead men go up or down—down to Gehenna or up to the throne, but always away from any position where they will be noticed. Down in the bottom shelves the "classics," the extinct monsters of the Victorian age, were quietly rotting. Scott, Carlyle, Meredith, Ruskin, Pater, Stevenson—you could hardly read the names upon their broad dowdy backs. In the top shelves, almost out of sight, slept the pudgy biographies of dukes. Below those, saleable still and therefore placed within reach, was "religious" literature—all sects and all creeds, lumped indiscriminately together. The World Beyond, by the author of Spirit Hands Have Touched Me. Dean Farrar's Life of Christ. Jesus the First Rotarian. Father Hilaire Chestnut's latest book of R.C. propaganda. Religion always sells provided it is soppy enough. Below, exactly at eye-level, was the contemporary stuff. Priestley's latest. Dinky little books of reprinted "middles." Cheer-up "humour" from Herbert and Knox and Milne. Some highbrow stuff as well. A novel or two by Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Smart pseudo-Strachey predigested biographies. Snooty, refined books on safe painters and safe poets by those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary reviews.

Dull-eyed, he gazed at the wall of books. He hated the whole lot of them, old and new, highbrow and lowbrow, snooty and chirpy.


He looked at the time-dulled "classics" near his feet. Dead, all dead. Carlyle and Ruskin and Meredith and Stevenson—all are dead, God rot them. He glanced over their faded titles. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ha, ha! That's good. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson! Its top edge was black with dust. Dust thou art, to dust returnest. Gordon kicked Stevenson's buckram backside. Art there, old false-penny? You're cold meat, if ever Scotchman was.


There were fifteen or twenty shelves of poetry. Gordon regarded them sourly. Dud stuff, for the most part. A little above eye-level, already on their way to heaven and oblivion, were the poets of yesteryear, the stars of his earlier youth. Yeats, Davies, Housman, Thomas, De la Mare, Hardy. Dead stars. Below them, exactly at eye-level, were the squibs of the passing minute. Eliot, Pound, Auden, Campbell, Day Lewis, Spender. Very damp squibs, that lot. Dead stars above, damp squibs below. Shall we ever again get a writer worth reading? But Lawrence was all right, and Joyce even better before he went off his coconut. And if we did get a writer worth reading, should we know him when we saw him, so choked as we are with trash?

John Frederick Peto (1854-1907), Take Your Choice

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