January 18, 1919. In Fleet Street yesterday there was at lunch with us an American Army officer who discoursed heartily about a certain literary public-house. He quoted a long passage from Dickens showing how somebody took various turnings near Fetter Lane, easily to be recognized, till they arrived at this very tavern. Such enthusiasm is admirable, yet embarrassing. In return, I inquired after several young American poets, whose work, seldom seen here, interests me, and I named their books. He had never heard of them. This enthusiast did not even appear to have the beginning of an idea that his was unforgivable ignorance seeing that he knew more than a native ought to know about some of our taverns. Had he been an Englishman and a friend of mine I should have told him that I thought his love of letters was as spurious as the morality of the curate who speaks in a trembling baritone about changes in the divorce laws, but who accepts murder without altering the statutory smile of benediction.
Literature would be lighter without that scroll work and top hamper. It has nothing to do with its life. It is as helpful to us as wall-texts and those wonders we know as works of Pure Thought. Let us remember all the noble volumes of philosophy and metaphysics we ought to have read, to learn how wonderfully far our brains have taken us beyond the relic of Piltdown; and then recall what Ypres was like, and buy a teetotum instead. That much is saved. Now we need not read them. If we feel ourselves weakening towards such idleness, let us spin tops. If we had to choose between Garvice and say Hegel or Locke for a niche in the Temple of Letters, we should make an unintelligible blunder if we did not elect Mr. Garvice without discussion. He is human, he is ingenuous and funny, and the philosophers are only loosening with the insinuations of moth and rust. The philosophers are like the great statesmen and the great soldiers--we should be happier without them. If we are not happy and enjoying life, then we have missed the only reason for it. If books do not help us to this, if they even devise our thoughts into knots and put straws in our hair, then they ought to be burned. It is true that some of us may get pleasure from searching novels for solecisms and collecting evidence by which shall be guessed the originals of the novelist's characters, just as others extract amusement from puzzle pictures. But bookworming has the same relation to literature, even when it is done by a learned doctor in the Bodleian, as flies in a dairy with our milk supply. If most of the books in the British Museum were destroyed, we might still have a friend who would go with us to Amiens to get one more dinner in a well-remembered room, and drink to the shades; we might still, from the top of Lundy at dusk, watch the dim seas break into lilac around the Shutter Rock, while the unseen kittiwakes were voices from the past; and we might still see Miss Muffet tiptoe on a June morning to smell the first rose. That is what we look for in books, or something like it, and when it is not there they are not books to us.