To the Editors:
I read Charles Rosen’s essay [“Culture in the Market,” NYR, November 6] with the interest his writing invariably deserves. In an attempt to cheer him up, I would like to report that the situation is perhaps not as grave as he fears, at least in the world of books. There is much to lament in latter-day publishing, but books of all kinds are more easily available than ever before. When I was growing up in Houston, we had a couple of quality bookstores, a few glorified kiosks, and many good libraries. No one would have expected to find a scholarly edition of Francis Bacon’s early philosophy in a bookstore; the tiny number of people interested in such a thing would have found it in the library of, say, Rice University. Very few people owned large numbers of books, and those who did usually commanded the significant fortunes required to bring them from more illustrious cities.
Today, almost any book I could conceivably want is easy to get from Amazon or any of the other excellent and complete online booksellers. Fine editions of all the classic English authors are easily available on line, and the fact that they are not continually updated or actively promoted is not so much a testimony to publishers’ laziness as it is to the fact that “out-of-print” is no longer the death sentence it was before the Internet. This has given books a much longer life, and a greater general availability, than ever before. And is there really any need for grand projects like the Pléiade? It is not clear to me that such lovely volumes are meant to be read. When it comes to reading a classic French author I would rather do so in a easily schleppable paperback with bigger print, fewer notes, and less fragile pages. The scholarly value of the Pléiade is incontestable. But maybe more important is their considerable snob appeal. As Mr. Rosen says, “the volumes are widely bought for Christmas and birthday presents.” Either way, they, too, are easy to find on line.
I live in a small foreign city. Before the Internet I would have been condemned to buying books on occasional trips to English-speaking capitals. Now I can get anything I want almost instantly. It is true that I cannot handle books before I buy them. But I do not feel “resigned to reading mainly the texts I can order electronically.” I think I speak for many people outside the metropolitan loop when I say I’m just thrilled I can get them at all.
Utrecht, the Netherlands
Charles Rosen replies:
I find the following in a review by W.H. Auden (in The Nation, April 26, 1947):
If an author is of real importance, all his books should be read, the minor works as well as the masterpieces, the failures as well as the successes; and the author of importance is, more often than not, prolific.
Even in the case of a minor writer, say Ronald Firbank, the reader who has a taste for his work would rather read all of it than read one line of some master, say Corneille, who does not appeal to him. But with the increase in the costs and the hazards of publishing and the growing reluctance of the public to read anything that is not recommended to them by critics and advertisements, it becomes rarer and rarer to find the complete works of any writer in print. One cannot blame the ordinary publisher for this, but it would be nice if the University Presses would take upon themselves the important unprofitable duty of issuing definitive editions of the dead.
Complete editions of the most admired authors of the past were available through the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries (the “snob value” of serious culture has always been one of the ways of helping it survive, but it doesn’t mean that it is the principal motif or reason for its vitality). There were several “grand projects” that presented all of the important poets from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, some of them reasonably priced; essayists and playwrights were equally well represented. Even Francis Bacon could be bought relatively complete in up-to-date texts. Bohn’s library, for example, and Everyman’s as well, presented a large part of classic English literature at a cost within the range of the lower middle class or even of the ambitious poorer student who could save up for it. You could buy the complete works of novelists like Fielding and Smollett in inexpensive single volumes (in double columns and small but clear print sturdily bound by the publisher).
These publications defined the cultural heritage and made it accessible to a large majority of those interested: the utility of these goals is contested today in some quarters. I do not suggest a return to the tyranny of an imposed academic taste, but I think the cultural tradition is not irrelevant and it should be available. The presentation of this inheritance today is haphazard, left largely to chance, and ineffective. A tradition, a shared culture, needs to change and develop, but it cannot do so without some coherence. Today it has become ill-defined, nebulous, and consequently with only a shadowy existence.
Mr. Moser is mistaken about the effectiveness of the Internet: The New York Review sent me a list of books by Francis Bacon available from that source, and precisely the volume of the complete edition that I wanted (and which contains works not obtainable elsewhere) was not to be found. The scandal is that this book was published only a year or so before I tried to buy it. Despite Auden’s hope, the policy of university presses in these matters is often more irresponsible than that of commercial houses. When an edition is kept in print (as with the beautiful ongoing critical edition of Coleridge published by Princeton University Press), the high price of the individual volumes make the expensive ones of Gallimard’s Pléiade edition seem like cheap paperbacks by comparison. The edition of Shelley printed by Longman (the first two of the eventual three volumes make it clear that it will probably be the best and most readable edition) will cost more than $300 when it is finished.
I believe that the literary and musical tradition of a culture ought to be easily available in the best form as a matter of course, like street lighting or public transport. This is not such a radical notion: making it available is often given tax-exempt status as if it were a public service, but in the present economy this is no longer good enough. Record stores, above all the big chains, no longer offer the full range of classical records but have cut back; in most bookstores only the cheapest editions of works of the past are to be found on the shelves; and publishers and record companies no longer believe that keeping their products available for any stretch of time is economically justifiable.
January 15, 2004