Tuesday 4 June 2024

Useless Knowledge

   What is the attraction of [Charles] Reade? At bottom it is the same charm as one finds in R. Austin Freeman’s detective stories or Lieutenant-Commander Gould’s collections of curiosities—the charm of useless knowledge. Reade was a man of what one might call penny-encyclopaedic learning. He possessed vast stocks of disconnected information which a lively narrative gift allowed him to cram into books which would at any rate pass as novels. If you have the sort of mind that takes a pleasure in dates, lists, catalogues, concrete details, descriptions of processes, junk-shop windows and back numbers of the Exchange and Mart, the sort of mind that likes knowing exactly how a medieval catapult worked or just what objects a prison cell of the eighteen-forties contained, then you can hardly help enjoying Reade. He himself, of course, did not see his work in quite this light. He prided himself on his accuracy and compiled his books largely from newspaper cuttings, but the strange facts which he collected were subsidiary to what he would have regarded as his “purpose”. For he was a social reformer in a fragmentary way, and made vigorous attacks on such diverse evils as blood-letting, the treadmill, private asylums, clerical celibacy and tight-lacing.
George Orwell, ‘Charles Reade’ in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, 4 vols (London : Secker & Warburg, 1968), II pp. 34-37 (II, p. 34).