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Cheap Knowledge

When at times it happens to me that I 'gin to be aweary of the sun,
and to find the fair apple of life dust and ashes at the core -- just
because, perhaps, I can't afford Melampus Brown's last volume of poems
in large paper, but must perforce condescend upon the two-and-sixpenny
edition for the million -- then I bring myself to a right temper by
recalling to memory a sight which now and again in old days would
touch the heart of me to a happier pulsation. In the long, dark winter
evenings, outside some shop window whose gaslight flared brightest
into the chilly street, I would see some lad -- sometimes even a girl
-- book in hand, heedless of cold and wet, of aching limbs and
straining eyes, careless of jostling passers-by, of rattle and turmoil
behind them and about, their happy spirits far in an enchanted world:
till the ruthless shopman turned out the gas and brought them rudely
back to the bitter reality of cramped legs and numbed fingers. ``My
brother!'' or ``My sister!'' I would cry inwardly, feeling the link
that bound us together. They possessed, for the hour, the two gifts
most precious to the student -- light and solitude: the true solitude
of the roaring street.

Somehow this vision rarely greets me now. Probably the Free Libraries
have supplanted the flickering shop lights; and every lad and lass can
enter and call for Miss Braddon and batten thereon ``in luxury's
sofa-lap of leather''; and of course this boon is appreciated and
profited by, and we shall see the divine results in a year or two. And
yet sometimes, like the dear old Baron in the ``Red Lamp,'' ``I
wonder?''

For myself, public libraries possess a special horror, as of lonely
wastes and dragon-haunted fens. The stillness and the heavy air, the
feeling of restriction and surveillance, the mute presence of these
other readers, ``all silent and all damned,'' combine to set up a
nervous irritation fatal to quiet study. Had I to choose, I would
prefer the windy street. And possibly others have found that the
removal of checks and obstacles makes the path which leads to the
divine mountain-tops less tempting, now that it is less rugged. So
full of human nature are we all -- still -- despite the Radical
missionaries that labour in the vineyard. Before the National Gallery
was extended and rearranged, there was a little ``St Catherine'' by
Pinturicchio that possessed my undivided affections. In those days she
hung near the floor, so that those who would worship must grovel; and
little I grudged it. Whenever I found myself near Trafalgar Square
with five minutes to spare I used to turn in and sit on the floor
before the object of my love, till gently but firmly replaced on my
legs by the attendant. She hangs on the line now, in the grand new
room; but I never go to see her. Somehow she is not my ``St
Catherine'' of old. Doubtless Free Libraries affect many students in
the same way: on the same principle as that now generally accepted --
that it is the restrictions placed on vice by our social code which
make its pursuit so peculiarly agreeable.

But even when the element of human nature has been fully allowed for,
it remains a question whether the type of mind that a generation or
two of Free Libraries will evolve is or is not the one that the world
most desiderates; and whether the spare reading and consequent fertile
thinking necessitated by the old, or gas-lamp, style is not productive
of sounder results. The cloyed and congested mind resulting from the
free run of these grocers' shops to omnivorous appetites (and all
young readers are omnivorous) bids fair to produce a race of literary
resurrection-men: a result from which we may well pray to be spared.
Of all forms of lettered effusiveness that which exploits the original
work of others and professes to supply us with right opinions
thereanent is the least wanted. And whether he take to literary
expression by pen or only wag the tongue of him, the grocer's boy of
letters is sure to prove a prodigious bore. The Free Library, if it be
fulfilling the programme of its advocates, is breeding such as he by
scores.

But after all there is balm in Gilead; and much joy and consolation
may be drawn from the sorrowful official reports, by which it would
appear that the patrons of these libraries are confining their
reading, with a charming unanimity, exclusively to novels. And indeed
they cannot do better; there is no more blessed thing on earth than a
good novel, not the least merit of which is that it induces a state of
passive, unconscious enjoyment, and never frenzies the reader to go
out and put the world right. Next to fairy tales -- the original
world-fiction -- our modern novels may be ranked as our most precious
possessions; and so it has come to pass that I shall now cheerfully
pay my five shillings, or ten shillings, or whatever it may shortly
be, in the pound towards the Free Library: convinced at last that the
money is not wasted in training exponents of the subjectivity of this
writer and the objectivity of that, nor in developing fresh imitators
of dead discredited styles, but is righteously devoted to the support
of wholesome, honest, unpretending novel-reading.

Kenneth Grahame