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In My Good Books

V.S.Pritchett and the War-Time Reader
James Fenton
copyright © 2005
Originally published in The Guardian
17 September 2005

There is no copyright in titles, and the title of this new column is taken from a collection of essays by V.S.Pritchett, published in 1942. "Its paper and binding," my copy informs me, "conform to the War Economy Agreement of the Publishers' Association." Cheap and yellow, in other words, published for members of the Readers' Union book club (a year after the first edition by Chatto and Windus.)

The essays are on literature, but the war is the unmistakable context. "Our contemporaries," writes Pritchett, "have almost ceased to write and, even if they begin again, it becomes every week more doubtful whether paper will be found to print them. The works of printers are bombed, books by the thousand are burned in the shops, stocks of paper are destroyed by fire or go to the bottom of the sea."

Given that publishing had ground to a near halt, the literary editor of the New Statesman, Raymond Mortimer, had encouraged Pritchett to write a series of essays taking the literature of the past as his theme, and it is these short works, which replaced the regular lead book reviews in that magazine, which were adapted and collected for In My Good Books. Pritchett, who calls himself "bookish but uneducated," tells us: "I am an unsystematic reader and the subjects of these essays have been chosen at random. They make no case. The accident of finding an author on the shelf has usually decided me."

He was not "uneducated" but had left Alleyn's School, Dulwich in 1915 at the age of fifteen, working in the leather and photographic trades before turning to journalism and fiction. What he depicts as random choice is of course an expression of his taste, which was very good, and that of his period. A strong interest in the Russians (at the age of 77 he produced a book about Turgenev) is characteristic both of the man and of his age. An intense religious background, which he escaped (his family were Plymouth Brethren), gives him an interest and authority when writing about, for instance, George Fox's journal.

The circumstances of Second World War book reading could hardly be more different from our own (except, of course, that there is a war on). Our publishing industry is quite gaseous, and we are -- or at least we feel -- very far from the situation imagined by Pritchett when he says that "The wise reader is one who prepares himself for the awful moment, a kind of Judgment Day, when only he and the hundred best authors are left in the world and have somehow to shake down together; when he will, so to speak, be stranded in the highest society."

One thinks of a damp cottage in the black-out, with a few shelves mainly of Everyman and the little hardback Oxford World's Classics. Or one thinks of all the readers on active service, making do with whatever volume came their way. One thinks perhaps of prisoners of war.

Today it is possible to buy more or less any book on impulse through the internet. Take the little Pritchett volume for example. When I purchased my copy years ago, it felt like a great find, and cost 75p. Checking on the other day, I noted more than a dozen copies for sale at prices ranging between £3.50 and £75. This spread of prices is typical of Internet book buying, and favours anyone interested in finding a decent reading copy of any title. Whether it also favours the booksellers is another matter. One of them told me that the Internet had made the cheap books cheaper, and the expensive yet more expensive.

If cheap books are cheaper, one might as well make the most of it. Pritchett in his lifetime was considered an essayist of the first rank. He is not as idiosyncratic as D.H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, but it is not ridiculous to think of him in such "ill-educated" novelistic company. Perhaps it is not good to be told by him that these essays "make no case." One case made at the outset is that "A work of art is an act of cooperation, often of reluctant cooperation like an awkward marriage, between the author and the kind of society he lives in. When we know something of the character of this aggravating partner, that which was once stiff and monumental becomes fluid and alive." In the case of these essays, the aggravating partner was the war, deprivation, shortage, destruction, suffering. The companion volume, appearing in 1946, was called The Living Novel, in which Pritchett decided to look at each classic novel as it came along, as if it were "a new just-published book."


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In My Good Books by V.S. Pritchett, Reader's Union/Chatto & Windus, London 1943. The edition I used is clearly inferior to the first edition proper, since it lacks the promised "note on where [the reader] can pick up the works discussed." Pritchett has much to say on life-writing. There are essays here on Gibbon's autobiography, Erckmann-Chatrian's Histoires d'un Conscrit de 1813, Vidocq's Mémoires, Kilvert's diary, George Fox's journal, Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, and Amelia Opie, author of a memoir of her husband, the painter Opie.

The Living Novel by V.S.Pritchett, Chatto & Windus, London 1946. This concentrates on fiction.

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