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  • “Too Many Books”: Book Ownership and Cultural Identity in the 1920s
  • Megan Benton (bio)

As the 1930 Christmas season approached, editor Henry Seidel Canby counseled readers of the Saturday Review of Literature not so much to buy books as to discard them. “There are not, as so many complain, too many good books,” Canby announced. Rather, he fumed, there are “too many books published only to be bought” (and, he might have added, bought only to be owned), “too many books used as a ‘color note,’ books as paper weights, books for the baby to sit on, books kept as feeble proof that someone has been educated, books that are everything but good books.” He declared the bookshelves of the typical American living room, glutted with books retained for such dubious purposes, a “depressing spectacle.” Not even a few books that seemed to have been thoughtfully selected for the value of their contents could redeem the collection from his scorn or, he urged, from the incinerator: “a civilized family should be ashamed to live in such company!” Canby thus catalogued the resentments many booklovers and intellectuals shared in the 1920s, a sense that “good” books and their owners had been betrayed in the era’s preoccupation with frivolous and pretentious uses of books. He even preferred the “barbarism” of the “newly housebroken who have moved into living rooms in the recent eras of prosperity” because they brought “no such sacred arks of culture with them, and they have used the shelves for phonograph records, all-story magazines, and the cat’s saucer of milk. It is at least the honester way.” 1 [End Page 268]

This editorial grousing employs, even as it disdains, one of the decade’s pervasive tools of cultural assessment, the assumption that one’s books say a great deal about one’s self. Traditionally understood as the vessel by which the human mind and spirit are shaped and preserved, the book had long been recognized as both agent and emblem of the cultivated intellect, soul, and life. For centuries the books lining one’s library walls had not only testified to one’s wealth, education, and leisure but had also offered a rich and broadly understood cultural vocabulary that articulated their owners’ character, beliefs, and values. Books—as particular texts but also increasingly as culturally charged physical objects apart from their specific content—thus bore close scrutiny throughout the 1920s as expressions of the social stature and cultural values of those who owned them. A closer look at those perceptions, and at their increasing ambiguity, can in turn inform our understanding of larger cultural patterns of the decade. 2

Book ownership helped to characterize the cultural gulf that many perceived between two kinds of Americans in the 1920s. This gulf was primarily pronounced by those who lamented it, the critics and intellectuals who viewed culture as a treasured, humbling inheritance from the past. They typically framed this gulf with an easy, if often crude, dichotomy: on one hand were those who discerned and valued good books for their own sake, for the enduring, intrinsic merit of their texts. On the other hand were those who treated books as “things” that might provide an hour’s diversion, impress the neighbors, deliver professional and social advantages, and so on, much like a new radio or automobile. The former type were applauded for exercising informed judgment and disciplined discretion in their purchases, while the latter were accused of indiscriminate profligacy, of fueling the market for the “too many” books gushing from publishers’ lists. The first group adhered to an older, traditional stress on moral restraint and inherent qualities of “character”; the second embodied the more social, constructed emphases of what Warren Susman has called the “culture of abundance.” 3 The difference between these two understandings of the nature and value of books seemed to signify nothing less than civilization itself.

Civilization, in fact, was declared to be at stake in the struggle that ensued between these two outlooks in the 1920s, one key dimension of which centered in the ideological meaning and function of books. It was a decade marked by a growing preoccupation with consumption of material goods...

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pp. 268-297
Launched on MUSE
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