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The Asperities Of The Early British Reviewers
by [?]

Book reviewers nowadays direct their attention, for the most part, to the worthy books and they habitually neglect those that seem beneath their regard. On a rare occasion they assail an unprofitable book, but even this is often but a bit of practice. They swish a bludgeon to try their hand. They only take their anger, as it were, upon an outing, lest with too close housing it grow pallid and shrink in girth. Or maybe they indulge themselves in humor. Perhaps they think that their pages grow dull and that ridicule will restore the balance. They throw it in like a drunken porter to relieve a solemn scene. I fancy that editors of this baser sort keep on their shelves one or two volumes for their readers’ sport and mirth. I read recently a review of an historical romance–a last faltering descendant of the race–whose author in an endeavor to restore the past, had made too free a use of obsolete words. With what playfulness was he held up to scorn! Mary come up, sweet chuck! How his quaint phrasing was turned against him! What a merry fellow it is who writes, how sharp and caustic! There’s pepper on his mood.

But generally, it is said, book reviews are too flattering. Professor Bliss Perry, being of this opinion, offered some time ago a statement that “Magazine writing about current books is for the most part bland, complaisant, pulpy…. The Pedagogue no longer gets a chance at the gifted young rascal who needs, first and foremost, a premonitory whipping; the youthful genius simply stays away from school and carries his unwhipped talents into the market place.” At a somewhat different angle of the same opinion, Dr. Crothers suggests in an essay that instead of being directed to the best books, we need to be warned from the worst. He proposes to set up a list of the Hundred Worst Books. For is it not better, he asks, to put a lighthouse on a reef than in the channel? The open sea does not need a bell-buoy to sound its depth.

On these hints I have read some of the book criticisms of days past to learn whether they too were pulpy–whether our present silken criticism always wore its gloves and perfumed itself, or whether it has fallen to this smiling senility from a sterner youth. Although I am usually a rusty student, yet by diligence I have sought to mend my knowledge that I might lay it out before you. Lately, therefore, if you had come within our Public Library, you would have found me in one of these attempts. Here I went, scrimping the other business of the day in order that I might be at my studies before the rush set in up town. Mine was the alcove farthest from the door, where are the mustier volumes that fit a bookish student. So if your quest was the lighter books–such verse and novels as present fame attests–you did not find me. I was hooped and bowed around the corner. I am no real scholar, but I study on a spurt. For a whole week together I may read old plays until their jigging style infects my own. I have set myself against the lofty histories, although I tire upon their lower slopes and have not yet persisted to their upper and windier ridges. I have, also, a pretty knowledge of the Queen Anne wits and feel that I must have dogged and spied upon them while they were yet alive. But in general, although I am curious in the earlier chapters of learning, I lag in the inner windings. However, for a fortnight I have sat piled about with old reviews, whose leather rots and smells, in order that I might study the fading criticisms of the past.