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The corner of Fifth and New Grub


“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue…”

— Samuel Johnson Rambler #106 (March 23, 1751)

I’m a little less than halfway through George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), a delightfully gloomy late Victorian novel about (among other things) the writer’s life and the uneasy relationship between art and commerce. It’s a remarkably well written, insightful and contemporary-feeling book, one that came highly recommended from friend of a friend. Interestingly enough, this book has been the subject of an issue of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor [”Grubstreet U.S.A.” American Splendor No. 11, see also]

I haven’t gotten to the end of it yet, so I can’t talk about the book with any real authority (not that I’ll be able to do so after reading it either). Nonetheless, I’d like to share with everyone a passage that I came across (in chapter VIII) that has to do with the main reading room of the British Museum. It provides a nice description of what I’ve oftened imagined to be the inner life of some of the people here at Mid-Manhattan (the ones with their heads down on the tables), and also offers a wonderfully inventive and funny riff on the maddening, almost mechanical way that the books here in The Library beget other books, which beget other books, which … 

I didn’t expect to find in books of this era a passage so light and grim at the same time - it’s sort of like the Sorcerer’s Appretice segment in Disney’s Fantasia, meets Thomas Malthus, meets Rube Goldberg, meets the Espresso Book Machine, meets …

You get the point. Here’s the passage:

“… The days darkened. Through November rains and fogs Marian [Yule, the daughter of (and researcher for) a bitter and somewhat unsuccessful writer/editor] went her usual way to the Museum, and toiled there among the other toilers. Perhaps once a week she allowed herself to stray about the alleys of the Reading-room, scanning furtively those who sat at the desks [for the young, up-and-coming writer Jasper Milvain], but the face she might perchance have discovered was not there.
One day at the end of the month she sat with books open before her, but by no effort could fix her attention upon them. It was gloomy, and one could scarcely see to read; a taste of fog grew perceptible in the warm, headachy air. Such profound discouragement possessed her that she could not even maintain the pretence of study; heedless whether anyone observed her, she let her hands fall and her head droop. She kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market. What unspeakable folly! To write — was not that the joy and the privilege of one who had an urgent message for the world?

Her father, she knew well, had no such message; he had abandoned all thought of original production, and only wrote about writing.

She herself would throw away her pen with joy but for the need of earning money. And all these people about her, what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet newer books might in turn be made out of theirs? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print — how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit!

Oh, to go forth and labour with one’s hands, to do any poorest, commonest work of which the world had truly need! It was ignoble to sit here and support the paltry pretence of intellectual dignity. A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed ‘Literary Machine’; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for to-day’s consumption. …”


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