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A London Book Window!

By (April 25, 2013) No Comment

a london book window

Our book today is James Milne’s soft-spoken, charming 1925 book A London Book Window, which poses for its readers one simple, irresistible question: “Do you like to hear about the little things which go on in the book world?”

Milne was a lifelong writer about books, a smart, unassuming man capable of making just about any subject interesting, and A London Book Window is as cheerful a miscellany as you’re likely to find among the products of our Ink Chorus. Our author’s attention is sharp, but it wanders at will, flickering over its chosen subjects with so many digressions that the impression is one not of looking through a window but of wandering in a garden.

He wrote for whoever in the book world was paying, and there were long seasons during which he only seldom got to pick his own subjects or his own deadlines. There have been countless hundreds of such writers since the rise of printed newspapers and magazines, and early on Milne understood what comparatively few of those writers ever seem to: gathering your rosebuds into books is the only shot you have at having somebody write about them on an obscure book-blog in a hundred years. An odd kind of immortality, certainly, but in the end even such miserable creatures as deadline critics will take whatever kind of immortality is on offer. The lazybones who just leave their various clippings moldering in newsroom file cabinets (or the electronic equivalents) don’t even get Stevereads – fire, flood, and worms consume their words forever.

Milne understood this, which is why he was always industriously making books, including his puckish News from Somewhere and My Summer in London. He understood the importance of presenting the reading public with an appealing variety of writing – and he understood the how personal it could all be:

Somebody read a newspaper review and learned that here was a particular book worth getting. Most likely, however, that somebody did not get it until a friend was met at a dinner-table who said: “I have just finished that book, and it is splendid. Order it at once from the library.” Advice like that was acted upon, because it came directly, because it was individual.

That antic variety is certainly visible in the Table of Contents for A London Book Window. We get chapters on bestsellers, happy endings, first novels, the history of Mudie’s in English literature, and a dozen other things, all complete with the aforementioned digressions – including some in which Milne had the courage to pipe up with some then-unfashionable opinions, including one on the era’s greatest fashion-victim:

A much nearer person, Anthony Trollope, as come along again with his Barsetshire novels of a Victorian England which has almost passed away. He has been made welcome, a little out of curiosity about himself, for he could write at the rate of a thousand words an hour, and he made nearly seventy thousand pounds, and also a little out of curiosity about the England which he describes. Anthony had no genius, and perhaps prided himself on the fact, but he took uncommon trouble to build stories of plot and character, and he is worth lucy reads a london book windowlooking up in the new editions of him.

The best mini-essay in the book is one hilariously titled “Were the Victorians Dull?” And again, our author has the courage of his convictions, rightly ranking the age among the greatest in English history: “We see definitely what some of the Victorians were prophets enough to claim in advance, that theirs was a time linkable for its riches with that of the Elizabethans.” That took nerve to write in early 20th century literary circles.

Most of A London Book Window is gaiety rather than anything as forbidding as courage, however, and it’s all as effortlessly readable today as it was the hour it was written – which is just how Milne would have wanted it, of course, and just want he was trying to do.