'Some Means of Learning of the Best New Books': All about Books and the Modern Reader

Article excerpt

We launch this Journal on a sea already overcrowded with journals, magazines and daily and weekly papers of all kinds, to say nothing of a superabundance of books published each month--this is just the trouble. As very ordinary members of the great public, we have found much difficulty in sifting the grains of wheat out of so much chaff, and many in our circle of social and business friends are in the same predicament. We like reading, and welcome with open arms anyone who can tell us of a good book.

If we could only find some means of getting recommendations of the best new books without having to read long, critical reviews, and search two or three papers for even this information, it would be a great boon. We read mainly for recreation, and want some means of learning of the best new books--some summary that will enable us to decide quickly if a book is the kind that will give us the pleasure and recreation or the information we desire ...

We intend to give information rather than criticism. We lay no claim to literary distinction. We do not even desire to be original. But we do aim to keep you advised of the best new books and what leading reviewers think of them, to give you interesting information about books and authors, to let you know of the books that are attracting worldwide attention and, perhaps, bring to your notice older good books you may have overlooked. ('Introduction')

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THIS was a novel way for a new books magazine to make its claims on readers' interests: by downplaying literariness and originality. But from its launch in December 1928 All About Books--or to give it its full title All About Books for Australian and New Zealand Readers--was a new kind of magazine, and in some respects not a literary magazine at all. It was interested in books before literature, and in readers before criticism. (1)

The journal's Introduction sets up the themes of my own essay, through four interconnected points. The first is that distinctive sense of an 'overcrowded' print economy, especially a 'superabundance' of new books. While this sensation of drowning in a sea of print has a longer history, it is characteristic of 1920s and 1930s modernity, and was instrumental in generating new institutions, like All About Books itself, for mediating between new books and new readers. Second, this sense of the contemporary marketplace produces a distinctive temporality. All About Books is geared almost entirely to the books and authors of the moment rather than to the past or tradition, and to up-to-date news about books, delivered 'quickly' and efficiently. (2) Thirdly, this temporality produces a particular attitude to criticism, suggested by the distinction drawn between 'criticism' and 'information'. It is not that the magazine rejects evaluation; on the contrary, its whole purpose is to know the best new books. But for the most part this task is not organised around notions of tradition or permanence. The editorial desires a very different relationship to books, one based upon forms of utility answering to specific needs, 'the pleasure and recreation or the information we desire', rather than the universal ends of 'literary distinction'. As an article celebrating the modern phenomenon of pocket editions puts it: 'Civilisation comes to us to-day in exquisite fragments suitable for shelf, suitcase or car, purposely designed to meet the fleeting needs of the modern race of nomads' (Thrush 42).

This relationship to books is manifested, finally, in the overwhelming orientation of the magazine towards readers. It offered book news to readers and consumers, not criticism addressed to the culture. The first issue of All About Books included a paragraph from Joad's The Future of Leisure, on reading as 'the most satisfactory of all the ways of spending leisure' (10). It announced a competition for the best reader's letter on 'The Book I Most Enjoyed Reading This Year'. …