Some Urgent Reforms. The Human Circulating Library
The Speaker, November 2, 1901
In the following reﬂections, my only intention is to
suggest a few plain and practical reforms in our
modern life- Utopian and revolutionary fancies I leave to
the visionary and the poet, and the ﬁrst of the institutions,
for which I feel that society is crying out, is the "Human
Circulating Library." In other words, it is crying out for a
Mr. Mudie, who, instead of circulating books, should circulate people.
It is generally supposed that we all believe the soul to
be more important than the body, the internal condition
more valid than the external act. And yet it is singular to
reﬂect that if this conception were actually carried out in
our civilisation, that civilisation would seem a city built by
madmen, a prodigy to the sun and stars. In such a city
it would not be important actions or sensational accidents
that would be reported in the newspapers, but important
emotions and sensational frames of mind. Special editions
of the evening papers would declare in sprawling headlines
not the fact that Botha had captured two hundred Canadians and the war was over; they would announce that Mr.
Robinson, of Leeds, was in a state of spiritual exhilaration,
or that seventeen persons in Paddington Green had been
stricken with a rich and pensive sadness.
Such strange and pleasing sights we should see if men
actually realised how much more important is the inward
than the outward life, and the heart than the head. In no
case would the principle be more revolutionary than in the
case I have already mentioned, the case of circulating
libraries. In this materialistic civilisation of ours, we insist that Mr. Mudie shall be compensated if a man has
damaged his book. But who speaks of any compensation
when a book has damaged a man? Who attempts to punish
the slovenly and unscrupulous volume which has dog-eared
a man’s opinions, soiled his ideal, torn out the coloured
pictures of memory and pride? How startled Mr. Mudie
would be if he received an account claiming so much for
destruction of beliefs, so much for unnecessary horror, so
much for waste of time. In this matter again, there would
be a whole Stock Exchange of practical commerce if we
realised that the soul is more than the body.
But the institution of circulating libraries is capable,
as I have hinted, of another and much wider and more inspiring development. The great curse of our civilisation
is that it is so large that whole masses of its inhabitants
never see any but one side of life, any but one phase of
thought. The modern world is so broad that all its citizens
are narrow. There were a great many advantages in living
in a small State, one of them was that of living in a larger
world. In Athens probably a man could not put his nose
outside his door without hearing Mystics and Atheists talking at the top of their voices. Today there are whole
tracts of country such as Brixton and Surbiton in which
the householder might go out in perfect safety, in which
great philosophers do not argue in the street, perhaps from
one year's end to another. These vast herds of suburban
citizens living perpetually among people like themselves,
might, indeed, be rescued to some extent from ignorance of others and of current thought by the
daily Press. But here again the party system frustrates us, and a man only reads in his daily paper
his own prejudices embellished with other people’s
arguments. Something must be done to shift and ﬂoat
these vast clogged and stagnant masses of human life.
Unless this is done it will be no idle jest to say that our
civilisation is melting away in an apocalypse which it has not
even the sense to understand. We require, in short, ﬁrst
and foremost, a quicker circulation of the civic blood.
The "Human Circulating Library" might be conducted either as an individual or a State concern. It
would be arranged on a simple principle. All those who
were members of it would hold themselves ready during
certain specified months of the year to stay at the houses of
any other members who had taken them out of the library.
In return, of course, they would themselves have the
privilege of taking other people out of the library. The
subscriber would send a postcard to the librarian saying,
"Send me Mr. Smiles, Professor Puffy, and Unterbringen,
the German Anarchist." The librarian would reply that
Professor Puffy was out at present, and that by the new
regulations of circulating libraries it was impossible to procure more than one copy of the same man. He would also
beg to remind the subscriber that he had already kept Miss
MacDermott beyond the proscribed time, and that a penny
per day was charged for the delay. At the end of the
week not Mudie’s cart, but Mudie’s comfortable private
omnibus would arrive and deposit two Dissenting preachers and an African explorer, with all their luggage, at the gate. Any person damaging a man would be required to make
To those duller sceptics who have in every age discouraged great and practical reforms, this scheme may
seem to verge even upon the fantastic. Some elements certainly there are in it which might lead to a seemingly
extravagant development. Local ofﬁcials might announce that owing to the kindness of Lady Warner "Major
Barker" had been added to the library, and philanthropists might gain a reputation for muniﬁcence by giving
whole sets of maiden ladies to so deserving an institution.
But however unfamiliar at ﬁrst the customs and phraseology
of the "Human Circulating Library" might appear, its essential results would be full of unfathomable wisdom and
proﬁt. Men would begin to realise that a man is not only
the most deep and vital, but the most entertaining of all
studies. Ambitious young students would talk about being
at work on "Wilkins" and getting up "Montmorenci."
There would in many places be two professors, nay, two
schools of thought, with different theories of the same old
gentleman. Some ardent young sociologist would begin
with great pride with being engaged on "Miss Butterworth,"
and end by being engaged to her.
I have dealt only with a few examples of the practical
and even prosaic side of the scheme. Of its moral and
spiritual utility and urgency I can hardly speak sufficiently.
It would break down that barrier the last, the silliest and
the most insolent of class barriers, more narrow and unmeaning than that between freemen and slaves, the barrier
between the people we do know and the people we do not.
It would erase that monstrous irony which will suddenly
strike the traveller who ﬁnds himself at night alone in a
long street walled on both sides by the hives of his brothers.
It would destroy that last and darkest of Cosmic jests,
whereby a desert can be made of houses. It will wake
us all suddenly to the thought that we are all living on a
desert island and have never spoken to each other.