Here’s the text of an ad appearing at the back of a 1913 edition of Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy, which I picked up from a cardboard box outside the Hyde Park Powell’s Books in Chicago, maybe three years ago. (This edition, including the ad copy, is also available on Google Books if you want to take a closer look.)
The greatest pleasure in life is that of reading. Why not then own the books of great novelists when the price is so small
Of all the amusements which can possibly be imagined for a hard-working man, after his daily toil, or in its intervals, there is nothing like reading an entertaining book. It calls for no bodily exertion. It transports him into a livelier, and gayer, and more diversified and interesting scene, and while he enjoys himself there he may forget the evils of the present moment. Nay, it accompanies him to his next day’s work, and gives him something to think of besides the mere mechanical drudgery of his every-day occupation—something he can enjoy while absent, and look forward with pleasure to return to.
Ask your dealer for a list of the titles in Burt’s Popular Priced Fiction
I spent a while Googling excerpts from this ad and saw that John Holbo had found it inside another book and posted it at The Valve a few years ago, succinctly noting, “This is curious ad copy.” With a little more searching it gets even weirder. As far as I can tell, the ad is pieced together from two quotations, both of them suggestively cut short. First, from an essay by William Hazlitt (my emphasis): “The greatest pleasure in life is that of reading, while we are young. I have had as much of this pleasure as perhaps any one. As I grow older it fades…”
Of all the amusements which can possibly be imagined for a hard-working man, after his daily toil, or in its intervals, there is nothing like reading an entertaining book, supposing him to have the taste for it, and supposing him to have the book to read. It calls for no bodily exertion, of which he has had enough or too much. It relieves his home of its dulness and sameness, which, in nine cases out of ten, is what drives him out to the alehouse, to his own ruin and his family’s. It transports him into a livelier, and gayer, and more diversified and interesting scene, and while he enjoys himself there he may forget the evils of the present moment, fully as much as if he were ever so drunk, with the great advantage of finding himself the next day with his money in his pocket, or at least laid out in real necessaries and comforts for himself and his family,—and without a headache. Nay, it accompanies him to his next day’s work, and if the book he has been reading be anything above the very idlest and lightest, gives him something to think of besides the mere mechanical drudgery of his everyday occupation,—something he can enjoy while absent, and look forward with pleasure to return to.
But supposing him to have been fortunate in the choice of his book, and to have alighted upon one really good and of a good class. What a source of domestic enjoyment is laid open! What a bond of family union! He may read it aloud, or make his wife read it, or his eldest boy or girl …
… So if we wanted to ask what makes this ad copy for Burt’s Popular Priced Fiction so “curious,” I think one answer would have to be that the ad is hung over. The alcohol itself has been vomited out, evacuated from the system, but there’s a lingering queasiness, having to do with a sense that “the function of the novel” (as John Holbo titled his post) is literally dissipation, distraction, a kind of hopelessly unreal, fleeting, individual escape from “evils of the moment” that are figured as otherwise inescapable. Herschel’s imagined workingman has had too much bodily exertion but he has no choice but to keep working. He doesn’t even have money in his pocket, only “necessaries and comforts” for his family, and yet that family has no life outside his own, and it would be their fault if he were driven to drink—they stand for “dulness and sameness,” and their only conceivable purpose is to ease his flight into the world of literature.
And—look again at that last line from the ad—if the workingman wants to make his flight with Burt’s Popular Priced Fiction, then who has to be asked? His dealer, obviously.