The Collected Letters, Volume 12


TC TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES ; 27 June 1840; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18400627-TC-EOT-01; CL 12: 176-179


[27 June 1840]

Mr Editor,—Orbilius,1 whom you surname Plagosus [one who likes to flog], your correspondent of Friday last,—who surely is a polite man for one thing,—rushes out into the street with a noble zeal to defend the cause of suffering Humanity; but I doubt whether, on that subject of the London Library, he is well instructed.

It seems, Orbilius cannot peruse “the excellently learned and profound works of Professor Whewell”2 without a “barrowful of other books” to refer to. Really it is a hard case; and if matters do stand so, it may in truth be the best plan for Orbilius to peruse those excellently learned and profound works at the British Museum rather than elsewhere. He will find, however, I should hope, a few other good books, which he can read seriatim, one or two at a time, without a wheelbarrowful all going on at once. These others he will like better to read at home. How it may stand with Professor Whewell I know not; but if Orbilius can read, to his satisfaction, works of real depth and excellence in any kind, such as are usually thought to require study, meditation, self-concentration, in the bustle, dust and din inseparable from the active presence of five hundred persons,—he possesses a faculty which many of Her Majesty's subjects are in want of.

But, adds he, there are Lending Libraries, Circulating Libraries, Vestry Libraries, “scores of them,” in every Street. Will Orbilius have the kindness to mention in what Street, at what Number, there is a Lending Library such, I do not say, as there should be in the greatest City of the world, but at all comparable to such as already are in Bristol, Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, and generally in all towns of the British Empire, and indeed of the civilized World,—London alone excepted! Does Orbilius know that there are six Government Libraries in Paris, several of them far superior in all respects to our Museum one; all of which, open, lighted, and warmed, till late night, are accessible to the poorest working man; all of which moreover lend books freely to whosoever has real claims on them? That there is a similar Government Library in every considerable Departmental Town in France? That in Germany, not twice as populous as England, perhaps not a tenth-part as wealthy, there are three hundred of such Public Libraries;—one of which, the Munich one, some years ago, offered to exchange duplicate volumes with our Museum, to the extent of 150,000 volumes, which proposal was respectfully declined?3 Does he know that there is in Iceland itself, in the wretched fishy village of Reykiavik, a Public Lending Library, free to all Icelanders, very decidedly better than any such that exists in London? Has Orbilius examined the Advocate's Library in Edinburgh, and the good and evil that results therefrom? The Signet Library in Edinburgh? The Merchant's Library?4 Has he ever read in any good history, any considerable number of good books? any good book? Does he know anything at all about Libraries or Books or reading?— In that case, what has he to do with this project, except close his lips about it, till he get some understanding of it,—convince himself that it is a right good project, and then forward it with his whole heart and his whole soul! He says the Times Newspaper is a daily Library. Alas, he has never had a course of reading in Iceland!

Orbilius concludes with an admonition to prevent “a set of cormorants from feeding on gulls.” So many eminent persons in Church and State, Bishop of Salisbury, Lords Eliot, Clarendon, Monteagle, Lyttleton,5—their names, position, procedure in this business, indicate to Orbilius that they wish to pick his pocket of five pounds! Orbilius clearly is not a cormorant; he will do no feats in that line. But has he reflected that, in important concerns of life, such as this and some others, the most fatally situated of all gulls is the one who lives in undue terror of being gulled? Here are a set of beneficent persons, coming to him with the first of blessings, true spiritual nourishment, that is to say good reading; he too is to have a taste, probably for the first time, of true spiritual nourishment; and his heart would leap with joy if he once got to taste it: but no; spying their advent from afar, he cries, “Cormorants! coming to eat me!”—and flies, with a shriek, into the hungry wastes again.

Praying to Heaven that this London Subscription Library were once fairly open; and that no Orbilius, Plagosus, Asinosus [Ass], or other honest man however stupid, may be eaten,

I remain yours, / Ne Sutor6

Pall-Mall East, 27 june.