|A. “Which is the greater sinner, Rhadamanthus—he who beats soft iron into smooth swords that all can use, or he who beats soft reeds into smooth, all-serving paper?” B. “Chain the two together, till they settle it between them.”
This is a heavy responsibility; for one cannot deny that the world might have been happier if stationery had never been invented. Yet it must have been a brother of our mystery—an original Hieratic Stationer—who first discovered that if you soak the leaves of the papyrus plant in the muddy waters of the Nile, and beat upon them with a mallet, the beastly stuff sticks together and makes what looks like paper. So we called it paper, and we supplied it as stationery, and men began to write upon it with reed pens. And when, in the course of time, we had rooted every green thing out of the Valley of the Nile; when we had killed the fatted calf, and the unfatted calf, and the calf unborn to make vellum; we tore the very rags off the backs of beggars, and we ground them and we pulped them to make more and more stationery. Why did we do that? Because some desperate soul, impatient of the slow, beautiful handicrafts of the past, had invented an apparatus called the printing-press. But, a printing-press without paper being as innocuous as an unloaded gun, we instantly charged it with stationery—the magnificent paper of Caxton’s time—and we improved the machine itself; and we devised special inks for it; and we created the business of publishing and distribution; and among us we launched the Eleventh Plague on suffering humanity.
Since that dreadful date there has not been a crime in the Decalogue, from anonymous letterwriting to the spread of idealism, which we have not fostered, facilitated, and democratised. Incidentally, too, we have turned life into the nightmare of a never-empty waste-paper basket.
It is true that our ministrations have prevented, or diverted, authors from reciting their works aloud at street corners. But I hold that, with a little patience, the increase of motor-traffic would have accomplished this end for mankind quite as effectively.
It is true, also, that our existence was forced on us by that providential itch for self-expression which afflicts poets, playwrights, politicians, and—other story-tellers. For, sirs, ye know that by their craft ye have your wealth. Yet it is to our credit that the Stationers’ Company has striven to mitigate some of the evils it has abetted. In ancient days, for instance, at the behest of the Archbishop of Canterbury and of the Bishop of London, it was our duty not only to black out objectionable passages from the works of objectionable authors, but also to break up the furniture and melt down the types of obnoxious printers. Unluckily the bases of criticism have widened since then; and I am told that I need not look forward to even an honorary share in these righteous delights. For authors, nowadays, may print what, where, and how they choose. And most of them do.
Man is always at war with, or wondering over, himself or his neighbours, or his gods; and he must needs tell all three what he thinks about them. Through the ages the net output of his dreams and imaginings has come to be known as Literature. Nevertheless, many men have given all that they possessed of passion, experience, and art to the making of it. Some have given their integrity also. Their individual names and fortunes concern the world as little as the share of a single coral-insect in building up the Great Barrier Reef of Australia which withstands the tide of the Pacific. But the fabric of the work to which they gave themselves is the one human creation which withstands time. And in no land has there been more wasteful or more superb giving than in England. Their work may at the last be found imperishable, or shown to be mere detritus of ancient thought fashioned and refashioned by the generations as they passed. That has been for the world—not for us—to judge.
Our Records of Stationers’ Hall pronounce no opinion. Impartial as the Recording Angel, they have entered and preserved for our race all the title-deeds of our great inheritance.