from Atlantic Monthly
The Amalgamated Book Insurance Club
by Ellis Parker Butler
When I get my just dues and become a millionaire, I am going to establish the Amalgamated Book Insurance Co. I believe it will be a huge success. It will cover a field that has too long been neglected; and I wonder why no such company has been created.
I have the prospectus, fully written, in my desk at this moment, and I have read it to Claudia; and she thinks, as I do, that it is one of the best things I have ever written.
Sometimes when Claudia and I are seated on our porch, -- we call it veranda when we have company to tea, -- Claudia jumps up with a startled expression and gazes with intensity toward the railway station. Then, suddenly, she turns to me, and says breathlessly: --
"There come Maude Jones and Walter Ferris! Run in and get that photograph of Maude, and set it on the mantel. It's in the bottom drawer of the sideboard. Be sure to put it right side up. And as you pass the bookcase, take out that book you borrowed of Walter, and dust it, and put it on the center table. Open it somewhere, and put it face down."
We always do this with borrowed books now. Once I borrowed the first volume of Hume's England from a friend, and after I had kept it six or seven years he came out to dinner. While I was down cellar grinding the icecream freezer, he got to nosing around, and just as I came up he was poking into the bookshelves.
"Say," he said in a mean, sarcastic tone, "get me a shovel, will you? I want to shovel a ton or two of dust off this book. It looks like the missing volume from my set of Hume. I've been trying for three years to think who borrowed it."
"Is that your book!" I exclaimed. "Do you know, Morris, I've been trying to find the owner of that book for years! Actually! I've asked and asked, and I have written and written. I don't know anything I have worried about as I have over that book. Seemed as if I couldn't find the owner!"
Morris opened the book, and showed me one of those nasty, suspicious-like bookplates, with his name on it.
But you may be sure he got no more invitations to dinner from Claudia and me.
When, however, I look along my own bookshelves, and see my set of Balzac grinning at me with one of its front teeth knocked out (Cesar Birotteau is the volume, and Ferguson has it; he's in California now), and see my dear, dear (it was dear in two ways, for I bought it on the three-dollars-down-and-three-dollars-due-every-time -you-are-hard-up plan) Daudet, with a mental vacuum just where Tartarin de Tarascon should be, I feel that the man who borrows a book and does not return it is as bad as a burglar. He breaks into the bookshelves with his enthusiastic chatter of books; and just when he has the owner slobbering with glee over a mutual admiration, he says gently, --
"I'd like to read that. You make me want to read it. It must be great if you talk that way about it."
Out comes the volume, and off with it goes the wretch, -- and you don't see him again for eight years. There is a burglar insurance against ordinary burglars; my plan is to have book-borrowers' insurance, -- or, at least, that was my first idea.
The Amalgamated Book Insurance Co. will insure every book owner who takes out a policy against the loss of books by borrowing. It will replace all books that are "borrowed for keeps." As soon as a policy-holder loans a book he drops a post card to the company, and at the end of six months a representative of the company takes a police officer, and a sheriff, and a constable, and goes to the borrower's house. The Company's representative is armed with a search warrant and a pair of bellows. He enters the borrower's house, finds the book, claims it, blows the dust off it with the bellows, and returns it to the lender. If the borrower cannot be found, the company pays the lender the full price of a new set of the books.
The moral effect of this would be mighty. The world would become better and kinder. Many a man of an otherwise Christian and generous spirit has become mean, stingy, and crabbed through losing books. He begins life poor but generous, with no books but a second-hand copy of David Harum and a gift copy of Milton's Poems, given him by a loving grandmother. He tries to lend Milton's Poems, but he can't. Nobody was ever known to borrow Milton's Poems, except children and the weak-minded. But his friends borrow his David Harum. He lends it ten times, and glows with happiness to think he has given happiness to ten persons. The eleventh person keeps the book. The altruistic youth does not care. He imagines the book is still going through many hands, and still giving pleasure. It is not. A borrowed book is a talent wrapped in a napkin and laid under a stone. The borrower does not return it; he dares not lend it. In such a case, David Harum ceases to be a great educative force, teaching men how to eat eggs, and becomes a dusty, innocuous desuetude.
A little later the youth buys a set of Dickens, printed in gray ink on thin blotting paper, at $2.98 for eighteen volumes. Each book is two inches thick and one ounce heavy. The bindings are green cheesecloth precariously stuck on with flour paste; but it is nonetheless a set of Dickens. When a youth owns his first set of books, he feels himself a literarian, but he is still generous. A friend takes David Copperfield. David C. remains where David H. went, -- in the realm of stagnant books. And so, gradually but surely, the youth becomes suspicious of his fellow men. His generosity dries in his veins, and he becomes a book miser, the meanest of all human beings. The Amalgamated Book Insurance Co. would allow him to lend right and left. Human nature would broaden and glow.
The second class of policy issued by the Amalgamated Book Insurance Co. would be granted to borrowers. This idea came to me when I looked over my bookshelves one night and saw how many books I had that were owned by people who had insisted that I borrow them. You can't refuse to take a book home with you when your friend begs and insists, and says, -- "Oh! you must take it! You really must. You may not like Henry James. I don't blame you. I didn't until I read this one. But this is great. I think it is the greatest novel ever written. You just take it. Take it for my sake. Please take it."
Of course you take it; but, even if you read it, you don't return it. I don't know why you don't return it, but you don't. You suffer pangs of shame. Your wife says from time to time, --
"You must return this book to Mr. Wallace; it is a shame."
But you don't return it.
The Amalgamated Book Insurance Co. returns the books for you. If you take out a borrower's policy, an inspector calls at your house once a week and goes over your bookshelves. All borrowed books he returns to their proper owners, and you can sleep at night without awakening with a qualm of conscience over that book you borrowed from Jones. This borrower's policy opens the whole vast field of literature to you. You can borrow any book of any man. You feel safe in borrowing, because you know the book will be returned. He has only to say, "Have you an Amalgamated Borrower's Policy?" and he knows the book will be back on his bookshelves in ten days. My Borrower's Policy scatters peace and goodwill over the world of books.
But the Amalgamated Book Insurance Co. does not end its usefulness there. I shall issue a Guarantee Policy to protect the policyholder against dull, poor, and trashy books. Every morning a credit sheet will be sent to all holders of this policy, and on it will be listed all the books issued the day previous, including the magazines. Opposite each book will be found its rating, as "B," "BB," "Z," "B12," and so on, and each policyholder will have a sheet giving the key to the ratings.
The ratings will be prepared by the most conscientious corps of critics available. As the Amalgamated Book Insurance Co. will receive no advertising from publishers, the ratings will be just and true.
If you read in the daily papers that "Green Fire, the new novel from the pen of Silas O. Gummy, is beyond all question the best book of the year, if not, indeed, of the past ten centuries," you can turn to the credit sheet.
"Green Fire, a novel, by Silas O. Gummy, PG47X," it says. You look at the key, and find that "PG47X" means "Dull, trashy, weakly sentimental, not worth reading," and you are saved $1.50 and valuable time.
For magazines the quotations will designate whether the matter contained runs to "Exposures," "Ladies' Fashions," "Guff," or "Good Reading."
Claudia and I, in talking it over, have thought of several other policies we might issue, but we have not fully decided on them. We might insure authors against the attacks of critics, and magazine editors against being drowned in floods of unavailable manuscripts, and publishers against books that prove failures, and all writers against unconscious plagiarism; but we have no definite plans.
What we would like to do would be to insure the lives of the characters in romantic novels. If we could do that, the Amalgamated Book Insurance Co. would be immensely popular. Think of the carnage and sudden death that strews the pages of the romantic novel, and suppose we could insure all the characters! How much more safe and sane they would feel! How much more reckless and bloodthirsty the bravoes would be; how more daring the duellists; how less gulpy and teary the death bed scenes!
But perhaps we cannot do that. I don't just see how we could manage it. But this we could do: we could insure authors against the pangs of seeing their books, the loved children of their brains, dying in grimy ignominy in that orphan asylum of the failures, the bookstall, where the cruellest words ever daubed with marking brush proclaim: --
"Any book on this stand 10 cents."