Sunday, June 30, 2019

'Perished in the Blitz of 1940'

Writing on this date seventy-five years ago, George Orwell unknowingly cites a presciently ominous number in a very different context: “Six million books, it is said, perished in the blitz of 1940, including a thousand irreplaceable titles.” Orwell writes “perished” rather than “were destroyed,” as though books were human lives (some 41,000 British citizens perished in the Blitz). There’s no way he could have known about the other six million. Back to his “As I Please” column:

“Most of them were probably no loss, but it is dismaying to find how many standard works are now completely out of print. Paper is forthcoming for the most ghastly tripe, as you can see by glancing into any bookshop window, while all the reprint editions, such as the Everyman Library, have huge gaps in their lists.”

All true, of course, but Orwell might as well be complaining about the unfairness of human mortality. Most books for most of history have been “ghastly tripe.” The unavoidable fact is that a lot of people like tripe, publishers are in business to make money, and it’s none of our business. If you want good books, you can find them. Among the books that almost perished in the Blitz was Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. Longman’s published it on March 13, 1939. By the start of the war six months later it had sold 240 copies. In December 1940, the Luftwaffe destroyed the Longman building and its contents on Paternoster Row. Most of the unsold copies of O’Brien’s novel were incinerated. It wasn’t republished until 1950, in the United States.

Orwell is the most overrated of twentieth-century writers. His fiction is cartoonish and much of it is unreadable. A handful of his essays are worthwhile, the ones on Dickens and Kipling, for instance, and “Bookshop Memories.” Most damning is his casual anti-Semitism.

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