The Enormous Multiplication of Books in Every Branch of Knowledge is One of the Greatest Evils of This Age

Edgar Allan Poe? Alfred Smee? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The number of new books has increased vertiginously in recent years, but even in the nineteenth century critics lamented an oversupply. Did the major literary figure Edgar Allan Poe complain that the proliferation of books was “one of the greatest evils” of his age?

Quote Investigator: Edgar Allan Poe was an early employee of the “Southern Literary Messenger” of Richmond, Virginia. In 1836 he wrote a review of a legal tome titled “Reports of Cases Decided in the High Court of Chancery of Maryland”, and his first sentence provided a harsh assessment: 1

We cannot perceive any sufficient reason for the publication of this book.

Poe’s piece included a provocative general statement on this topic. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

Now, the enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information, by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber, in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful matter, peradventure interspersed. In no department have the complaints of this evil been louder or more just, than in the law.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1843 Alfred Smee who was a prominent English surgeon and scientific researcher published “The Sources of Physical Science” which included a passage that was thematically similar to Poe’s remarks and employed the phrase “multiplication of books”: 2

In former times when the means of communicating knowledge were limited to the manual labour of writing every separate copy of a work, those who entered into such a difficult task were deservedly recognised as benefactors to mankind; but in these days, when the facility of printing allows such unlimited multiplication of books, that useful knowledge is lost amongst the mass of volumes produced, an apology is required by every writer who adds to the difficulty of learning, by increasing the quantity of books from which knowledge is to be selected.

Poe died in 1849, and in 1850 a collection of his writings appeared under the title “The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Autorial Merits and Demerits”. A section called “Marginalia” reprinted an excerpt from the 1856 book review that corresponded to the text given previously without the final sentence. 3 The excerpt was reprinted again in volume 3 of the 1856 edition of “The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe”. 4

Poe’s striking words caught the eye of the acerbic commentator H. L. Mencken who included them in his massive 1942 compendium “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”: 5

The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information, by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful matter, peradventure interspersed.
E. A. POE: Marginalia, 1844-49

The 1992 collection “American Quotations” by Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich included the same passage ascribed to Poe. 6

In conclusion, Edgar Allan Poe did assert that the number of books in his time was excessive. He deserves credit for the words he wrote in 1836. Surgeon Alfred Smee made a similar point in 1843.

Image Notes: Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe circa 1913 accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of books lining the wall of a library from Pexels at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Alexios whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Alexios found the quotation in a 2013 collection of works ascribed to Poe.)

Notes:

  1. 1836 October, Southern Literary Messenger, Volume 2, Number 11, Bland’s Chancery Reports (Book Review of “Reports of Cases Decided in the High Court of Chancery of Maryland” by Theodorick Bland) Quote Page 731, Column 2, Publisher and Proprietor T. H. White, Richmond, Virginia. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1843, The Sources of Physical Science: Being an Introduction to the Study of Physiology through Physics by Alfred Smee (Surgeon to the Bank of England), Section: Preface, Quote Page v, Henry Renshaw, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1850, The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Autorial Merits and Demerits, with Occasional Works of Personality Together with Marginalia, Suggestions, and Essays by Edgar Allan Poe, Chapter: Marginalia, Section: CLXXX, Quote Page 565, J. S. Redfield, New York. (Facsimile created by the University of Minnesota Bindery) (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1856, The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe with A Memoir of Rufus Wilmot Griswold and Notices of His Life and Genius by N. P Willis and J. R. Lowell, Volume 3 of 4, The Literati, Chapter: Marginalia, Section: CLXXX, Quote Page 565, Redfield, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Books, Quote Page 118, Column 1, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1992 (Copyright 1988), American Quotations by Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, Topic: Books, Quote Page 106, Column 1, Column 1, A Hudson Group Book: Wings Book, New York. (Verified with scans)