The ancient and honourable art of Reviewing is, without question, the most important branch of the great calling which we term the ‘Career of Letters.’
As it is the most important, so also it is the first which a man of letters should learn. It is at once his shield and his weapon. A thorough knowledge of Reviewing, both theoretical and applied, will give a man more popularity of power than he could have attained by the expenditure of a corresponding energy in any one of the liberal professions, with the possible exception of Municipal politics.
It forms, moreover, the foundation upon which all other literary work may be said to repose. Involving, as it does, the reading of a vast number of volumes, and the thorough mastery of a hundred wholly different subjects; training one to rapid, conclusive judgment, and to the exercise of a kind of immediate power of survey, it vies with cricket in forming the character of an Englishman. It is interesting to know that Charles Hawbuck was for some years principally occupied in Reviewing; and to this day some of our most important men will write, nay, and sign, reviews, as the press of the country testifies upon every side.
It is true that the sums paid for this species of literary activity are not large, and it is this fact which has dissuaded some of our most famous novelists and poets of recent years from undertaking Reviewing of any kind. But the beginner will not be deterred by such a consideration, and he may look forward, by way of compensation, to the ultimate possession of a large and extremely varied library, the accumulation of the books which have been given him to review. I have myself been presented with books of which individual volumes were sometimes worth as much as forty-two shillings to buy.
Having said so much of the advantages of this initial and fundamental kind of writing, I will proceed to a more exact account of its dangers and difficulties, and of the processes inherent to its manufacture.
It is clear, in the first place, that the Reviewer must regard herself as the servant of the public, and of her employer; and service, as I need hardly remind her (or him), has nothing in it dishonourable. We were all made to work, and often the highest in the land are the hardest workers of all. This character of service, of which Mr Ruskin has written such noble things, will often lay the Reviewer under the necessity of a sharp change of opinion, and nowhere is the art a better training in morals and application than in the habit it inculcates of rapid and exact obedience, coupled with the power of seeing every aspect [End Page 182] of a thing, and of insisting upon that particular aspect which will give most satisfaction to the commonwealth.
It may not be uninstructive if I quote here the adventures of one of the truest of the many stout-hearted men I have known, one indeed who recently died in harness reviewing Mr Garcke’s article on Electrical Traction in the supplementary volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This gentleman was once sent a book to review; the subject, as he had received no special training in it, might have deterred one less bound by the sense of duty. This book was called The Snail: Its Habitat, Food, Customs, Virtues, Vices, and Future. It was, as its title would imply, a monograph upon snails, and there were many fine coloured prints, showing various snails occupied in feeding on the leaves proper to each species. It also contained a large number of process blocks, showing sections, plans, elevations, and portraits of snails, as well as detailed descriptions (with diagrams) of the ears, tongues, eyes, hair, and nerves of snails. It was a comprehensive and remarkable work.
My friend (whose name I suppress for family reasons) would not naturally have cared to review this book. He saw that it involved the assumption of a knowledge which he did not possess, and that some part of the book might require very close reading. It numbered...