THE Englishman of moderate means has one great advantage over the American, - he can buy good books of the best authors at a reasonable price. There are hundreds of entertaining and instructive shilling books, not to mention the respectable library one could collect at the rate of sixpence a volume. The leading publishing houses issue at times "libraries," as they call them, of famous authors, in paper covers, it is true, but printed on fair paper and in good type; these "libraries," comprising history, science, and fiction, furnish good reading at prices within the reach of every one who wants to read at all.
Public, College, and Society libraries may be serviceable, and are undoubtedly necessary. No private individual can hope to acquire so large, so valuable, or so comprehensive a collection of books as a rich and well-managed library. The great benefit of any library is that it has books on all subjects, and we can find something in it on the transit of Venus or the restored digamma. As a man reads he soon becomes interested in some particular branch, and desires to learn (pleasing hypothesis!) all he can about it; for this purpose he wants to buy books relating to it for his own private library, and finds a public library of great value when desiring to consult books on other subjects. The large libraries furnish us with the standard authors, and many books we like well enough to read once, but would never think of buying.
But there are some books that we want to have by us, and in our own libraries, yet are unable to pay the outrageous prices asked for them. It makes little difference if I read Lamb in full Russia, blue and gold, or the abominable yellow cover; in point of fact, one enjoys a novel or essay quite as much when the cover can be turned back and the book rather familiarly used. The imposing libraries that impart an air of wonderful erudition to the regal house of many a merchant, do their only duty in doing as much as this. Good little boys in story-books open valuable volumes in quest of traditional dollar-bills between the leaves, but many a volume is never opened or even taken from its shelf in some libraries. Cheap literature is not for such epicures as these; they must take their learning, as the poor, sick homeopathics do, in sugar-coated form. The binding of a book improves its appearance, but we must be cautious in judging by appearances, for a table of logarithms may be bound in full calf!
The reading man wants to have his library well stocked on his "hobby," but yet not entirely deficient in everything else. When we study one thing excessively we need relaxation, or sad consequences will ensue. One poor man read too much Gibbon, and he is now in a "decline."
The miserable gingerbread covers put on the standard books so temptingly displayed in the dollar stores surely add nothing to their value. In England the same books in plain paper covers sell at about one fourth the price. Few college men there are but would like to read and own many capital books, but are deterred from buying by the $2.50 regular price, even with a mysterious "trade," "cash," and "personal favor" deduction reducing it to $1.13.
A series of cheap publications has been begun in New York. The aristocratic patrons of the famous yellow-covered novels (ycleped Beadle's) can now read the "Charge of the Light Brigade" and other rather ennobling pieces, at a like price. Could the piracy so indiscriminately employed with the books of English authors be turned to some public good, the school-boy of the future might buy "Tom Brown" for a dime, and the poorest family might have its Bible, Shakspere, and Principles of Political Economy.
If Boston publishers would take in hand the subject of cheap publications of the best and most popular books, the whole country would be the gainer. Something of the kind has been done by that enterprising house Messrs. Estes and Lauriat, and their "Half-Hour Recreations in Popular Science" are a move in the right direction.
The newspaper may be a "mighty engine" and "a great cultivator," but Americans want something more than ephemeral newspaper literature, and the time has come for cheap books. When the best works of the standard authors can be bought at moderate prices, men of moderate means will not be slow in buying freely.