On Books and The Housing of Them

W.E. Gladstone
BY William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898)

In the old age of his intellect (which at this point seemed to taste a little
of decrepitude), Strauss declared [1] that the doctrine of immortality
has recently lost the assistance of a passable argument, inasmuch as it
has been discovered that the stars are inhabited; for where, he asks,
could room now be found for such a multitude of souls? Again, in view
of the current estimates of prospective population for this earth, some
people have begun to entertain alarm for the probable condition of
England (if not Great Britain) when she gets (say) seventy millions that
are allotted to her against six or eight hundred millions for the United
States. We have heard in some systems of the pressure of population
upon food; but the idea of any pressure from any quarter upon space is
hardly yet familiar. Still, I suppose that many a reader must have been
struck with the naive simplicity of the hyperbole of St. John, [2]
perhaps a solitary unit of its kind in the New Testament: "the which if
they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself
could not contain the books that should be written."
A book, even Audubon (I believe the biggest known), is smaller than a
man; but, in relation to space, I entertain more proximate apprehension
of pressure upon available space from the book population than from
the numbers of mankind. We ought to recollect, with more of a realized
conception than we commonly attain to, that a book consists, like a
man, from whom it draws its lineage, of a body and a soul. They are
not always proportionate to each other. Nay, even the different
members of the book-body do not sing, but clash, when bindings of a
profuse costliness are imposed, as too often happens in the case of
Bibles and books of devotion, upon letter-press which is respectable
journeyman's work and nothing more. The men of the Renascence had
a truer sense of adaptation; the age of jewelled bindings was also the

age of illumination and of the beautiful miniatura, which at an earlier
stage meant side or margin art,[3] and then, on account of the small
portraitures included in it, gradually slid into the modern sense of
miniature. There is a caution which we ought to carry with us more and
more as we get in view of the coming period of open book trade, and of
demand practically boundless. Noble works ought not to be printed in
mean and worthless forms, and cheapness ought to be limited by an
instinctive sense and law of fitness. The binding of a book is the dress
with which it walks out into the world. The paper, type and ink are the
body, in which its soul is domiciled. And these three, soul, body, and
habilament, are a triad which ought to be adjusted to one another by the
laws of harmony and good sense.
Already the increase of books is passing into geometrical progression.
And this is not a little remarkable when we bear in mind that in Great
Britain, of which I speak, while there is a vast supply of cheap works,
what are termed "new publications" issue from the press, for the most
part, at prices fabulously high, so that the class of real purchasers has
been extirpated, leaving behind as buyers only a few individuals who
might almost be counted on the fingers, while the effective circulation
depends upon middle-men through the engine of circulating libraries.
These are not so much owners as distributers of books, and they
mitigate the difficulty of dearness by subdividing the cost, and then
selling such copies as are still in decent condition at a large reduction.
It is this state of things, due, in my opinion, principally to the present
form of the law of copyright, which perhaps may have helped to make
way for the satirical (and sometimes untrue) remark that in times of
distress or pressure men make their first economies on their charities,
and their second on their books.
The annual arrivals at the Bodleian Library are, I believe, some twenty
thousand; at the British Museum, forty thousand, sheets of all kinds
included. Supposing three-fourths of these to be volumes, of one size or
another, and to require on the average an inch of shelf space, the result
will be that in every two years nearly a mile of new shelving will be
required to meet the wants of a single library. But, whatever may be the
present rate of growth, it is small in comparison with what it is likely to

become. The key of the question lies in the hands of the United
Kingdom and the
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