Some Urgent Reforms: The Human Circulating Library

In the following reflections, my only intention is to suggest a few plain and practical reforms in our modern life — Utopian and revolutionary fancies I leave to the visionary and the poet, and the first of the institutions, for which I feel that society is crying out, is the “Human Circulating Library.” In other words, it is crying out for a Mr. Mudie, who, instead of circulating books, should circulate people.

It is generally supposed that we all believe the soul to be more important than the body, the internal condition more valid than the external act. And yet it is singular to reflect that if this conception were actually carried out in our civilisation, that civilisation would seem a city built by madmen, a prodigy to the sun and stars. In such a city it would not be important actions or sensational accidents that would be reported in the newspapers, but important emotions and sensational frames of mind. Special editions of the evening papers would declare in sprawling head lines not the fact that Botha had captured two hundred Canadians and the war was over; they would announce that Mr. Robinson, of Leeds, was in a state of spiritual exhilaration, or that seventeen persons in Paddington Green had been stricken with a rich and pensive sadness.

Such strange and pleasing sights we should see if men actually realised how much more important is the inward than the outward life, and the heart than the head. In no case would the principle be more revolutionary than in the case I have already mentioned, the case of circulating libraries. In this materialistic civilisation of ours, we insist that Mr. Mudie shall be compensated if a man has damaged his book. But who speaks of any compensation when a book has damaged a man? Who attempts to punish the slovenly and unscrupulous volume which has dog-eared a man’s opinions, soiled his ideal, torn out the coloured pictures of memory and pride? How startled Mr. Mudie would be if he received an account claiming so much for destruction of beliefs, so much for unnecessary horror, so much for waste of time. In this matter again, there would be a whole Stock Exchange of practical commerce if we realised that the soul is more than the body.

But the institution of circulating libraries is capable, as I have hinted, of another and much wider and more inspiring development. The great curse of our civilisation is that it is so large that whole masses of its inhabitants never see any but one side of life, any but one phase of thought. The modern world is so broad that all its citizens are narrow. There were a great many advantages in living in a small State, one of them was that of living in a larger world. In Athens probably a man could not put his nose outside his door without hearing Mystics and Atheists talking at the top of their voices. To-day there are whole tracts of country such as Brixton and Surbiton in which the householder might go out in perfect safety, in which great philosophers do not argue in the street, perhaps from one year’s end to another. These vast herds of suburban citizens living perpetually among people like themselves, might, indeed, be rescued to some extent from ignorance of others and of current thought by the daily Press. But here again the party system frustrates us, and a man only reads in his daily paper his own prejudices embellished with other people’s arguments. Something must be done to shift and float these vast clogged and stagnant masses of human life. Unless this is done it will be no idle jest to say that our civilisation is melting away in an apocalypse which it has not even the sense to understand. We require, in short, first and foremost, a quicker circulation of the civic blood.

The “Human Circulating Library” might be conducted either as an individual or a State concern. It would be arranged on a simple principle. All those who were members of it would hold themselves ready during certain specified months of the year to stay at the houses of any other members who had taken them out of the library. In return, of course, they would themselves have the privilege of taking other people out of the library. The subscriber would send a postcard to the librarian saying, “Send me Mr. Smiles, Professor Puffy, and Unterbringen, the German Anarchist.” The librarian would reply that Professor Puffy was out at present, and that by the new regulations of circulating libraries it was impossible to procure more than one copy of the same man. He would also beg to remind the subscriber that he had already kept Miss MacDermott beyond the proscribed time, and that a penny per day was charged for the delay. At the end of the week not Mudie’s cart, but Mudie’s comfortable private omnibus would arrive and deposit two Dissenting preachers and an African explorer, with all their luggage, at the gate. Any person damaging a man would be required to make him good.

To those duller sceptics who have in every age discouraged great and practical reforms, this scheme may seem to verge even upon the fantastic. Some elements certainly there are in it which might lead to a seemingly extravagant development. Local officials might announce that owing to the kindness of Lady Warmer, “Major Barker” had been added to the library, and philanthropists might gain a reputation for munificence by giving whole sets of maiden ladies to so deserving an institution. But however unfamiliar at first the customs and phraseology of the “Human Circulating Library” might appear, its essential results would be full of unfathomable wisdom and profit. Men would begin to realise that a man is not only the most deep and vital, but the most entertaining of all studies. Ambitious young students would talk about being at work on “Wilkins” and getting up “Montmorenci.” There would in many places be two professors, nay, two schools of thought, with different theories of the same old gentleman. Some ardent young sociologist would begin with great pride with being engaged on “Miss Butterworth,” and end by being engaged to her.

I have dealt only with a few examples of the practical and even prosaic side of the scheme. Of its moral and spiritual utility and urgency I can hardly speak sufficiently. It would break down that barrier the last, the silliest and the most insolent of class barriers, more narrow and unmeaning than that between freemen and slaves, the barrier between the people we do know and the people we do not. It would erase that monstrous irony which will suddenly strike the traveller who finds himself at night alone in a long street walled on both sides by the hives of his brothers. It would destroy that last and darkest of Cosmic jests, whereby a desert can be made of houses. It will wake us all suddenly to the thought that we are all living on a desert island and have never spoken to each other.

 G.K. Chesterton