Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Oprah's 18th Century Book Club

by Stephen J. Gertz

Etching by Thomas Rowlandson.

“The rural book­seller of aspect pale,
And bent with age, comes tott’ring down the vale…
Who but has heard his tale, so often told,
Of famous men, whose names he once enroll’d.
How those illus­tri­ous mem­bers spoke and thought,
What ale they tip­pled, and what books they bought.”

And so we learn of a traveling bookseller in eighteenth century England. The stanza is from A Country  Book-Club, a poem written by Charles Shillito and published in 1788.

Shillito published it himself by subscription. Rev. Bland, Miss Bull, Major Blatch, Mr. Best, Mrs. Butts,  Mr. Eye, Mrs. Gepp, Mr. Goff, Mr. Love, Mr. Mow, Mr. Plite, Miss Sturgeon, and Mr. Swallow are amongst the many that Shillito put the bite on to raise funds for its publication.

After a preamble that ambles in  slo-mo through a lyric paean to the joys of learning and erudition, the poet introduces us to his pastoral book-club, followed by a conclusion tacit in the original but implied by modern trends.

"With minds less polished, but with lungs more loud, 
Began to sacrifice at wisdom's shrine, 
And taste the sweets of lit'rature - and wine.
The cottage Book-club, on the village green...
Within the bosom of this famed retreat,
The motley members of the Book-club meet."

They tipple through besotted stanzas, 
Blotto recitations are their emblem.
Usually they reap no rich bonanzas
As a drinking club with a reading problem.

But fortified wine verses cannot bar 
The reward of lit'rature to those gone far,
So thus declares the club's daytime T.V. star:
"Read up, people, today ev'rybody gets a FREE CAR!!!"

It's easy to mock group-read, we misfit  readers, yet they played a crucial role in the late eighteenth century well into the nineteenth as  primary diffusers of knowledge in a world without public libraries, fostered the love of reading and of books, and went a long way toward popularizing the novel, not just in the cities but in the countryside as well, particularly so.

Little is known of Charles Shillito. OCLC notes three other works by him: God Save the Queen! (1761); The Sea-Fight (1779); and The Man of Enterprise (1789).

SHILLITO, Charles. The Coun­try Book-Club. A Poem. Lon­don: Printed for the Author and sold by W. Lowndes …, 1788. Quarto (28 cm). 39 pp. Illus­tra­tion on titlepage etched by Thomas Row­land­son.


Image courtesy of James Burmester Rare Books, currently offering this item, with our thanks.

A tip o' the hat to Judith D. Henry for the the first apocryphal stanza's last line.

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