Thursday, October 27, 2016


Just the other day I was turning over the pages of Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason, when I realized that he quotes Shaw twice in two different articles: one about blues guitarist and singer B.B. King and another on Jazz trumpetist Louis Armstrong. On both occasions, the quotations read more or less the same, something along the lines that "anybody can make a beginning."

Although no source is provided -and the wording is slightly different- in either case, I thought these words were likely to come from one of Shaw's critical pieces on music. Bingo!

The first volume of Music in London (1890-1894) contains an article dated 9 December 1891 in which he criticizes another form of "bardolatry" during Mozart's centenary. As he says in the second paragraph, "The word is, of course, Admire, admire, admire." But Shaw refuses to simply please his readers and remains aware of the fact that many Mozart 

"...worshippers cannot bear to be told that their hero was not the founder of a dynasty. But in art the highest success is to be the last of your race, not the first. Anybody, almost, can make a beginning: the difficulty is to make an end—to do what cannot be bettered."

This piece, because it includes Dickens among other artists who were the last of their generation, is also quoted in the introduction to Dan H. Laurence and Martin Quinn's Shaw on Dickens

Needless to say, another thing that struck me - although it should come as no surprise - is that this jazz and pop music critic was indeed familiar with Shaw's music criticism. It amazes me to think of how influential Shaw has been and remains to be in so many fields and for so long. 

But to return to the dichotomy of beginnings and ends in art, readers may wish perhaps to learn that this is not the only time that Shaw used the same rhetorical parallelism - although in a rather different sense and spere.  

In his lecture "The Simple Truth about Socialism," included -among other works- in Louis Crompton's The Road to Equality (pp. 155-194), Shaw argues that "we must improve the nation if we are to im­prove its institutions"; in other words, that we must strive to produce the "Superman" before attempting any profound socio-political reform. This idea, however, is not devoid of problems for

"The Eugenic Society feels quite sure, apparently, that it can make a beginning by at least breeding out tuberculosis, epilepsy, dipsomania, and lunacy; but for all we know to the contrary, the Superman may be tubercu­lous from top to toe; he is quite likely to be a controlled epileptic; his sole diet may be overproof spirit; and he will cer­tainly be as mad as a hatter from our point of view. We really know nothing about him. Our worst failures today may be simply first attempts at him, and our greatest successes the final perfection of the type that is passing away. Under these cir­cumstances there is nothing to be done in the way of a stud farm. We must trust to nature: that is, to the fancies of our males and females. No doubt some of the fancies are morbid; but they must all have some meaning: that is, some purpose; and the purpose must he in the main a vital one, or it would hardly have survived. At all events, that is the best we can make of the situation."

Given the previous opinion on what it means to "make a beginning," it seems quite clear that Shaw is renouncing eugenics at this stage -be it because it is immoral or impractical. Shaw's interest in and discussion of eugenics and its methods, however, are multifaceted, so I won't go beyond recommending the most recent book I know of that covers this topic: Bernard Shaw and Totalitarianism: Longing for Utopia.

This blog, alas, can only make a beginning. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016


A few months ago I came across a new bibliographical reference - almost by chance - of which I knew very little at first: only that its title was "Well Printed Books." Upon further investigation I found out that the item in question was not a book or an article, but rather a piece of art. More specifically, one by Tara McLeod (, a "hand-print book-maker" based in New Zealand. Among his works, there is a beautiful broadsheet of a Shaw quotation that reads

"Well printed books are just as scarce as well written ones, and every author should remember that the most costly books derive their value from the craft of the printer and not from the author's genius."

I must admit I fell in love with the quotation, as well as with the quality of the printing and typesetting - to the extent that I went to great lengths to get one of the few copies available at the National Library of New Zealand (thanks are due to their staff, who went beyond their duty to make this possible). Here is what the framed piece looks like on my office wall. 

Initially, this piece was commissioned by the National Library Of New Zealand in 2015 for their exhibition “The Book Beautiful,” which seems to have been worth a visit

However, as you probably have guessed by now, this post is actually meant to find out more about the source and context of the quotation. Well, wait no more. These words belong to Shaw's essay "On Modern Typography," which opens with a note of gratitude "to the printer, and the printer's reader" and ends on "the moral of what I have been saying," summed up in the above quotation. 

Of course, by the reverse token, printers who do not do their job professionally - as it apparently happened with some page proofs of The Devil's Disciple (Collected Letters, 1898-1910, p. 226), "should be boiled down into tallow forthwith & sold for what he will fetch." This passage can also be read in the more recent Bernard Shaw and His Publishers, edited by Michel W. Pharand. 

Although most Shavians know of Shaw's interest in printing and typesetting - and practically every other process involved in publishing a book - is won't hurt anybody to remind readers of how this interest was spurred by his friendship with William Morris

George Frederic Watts portrait of William Morris 1870

And one gets a pretty accurate idea of how serious Shaw was about the whole printing business when one reads his letter to Grant Richards (9th September 1898) with the detailed specifications for the forthcoming edition of The Perfect Wagnerite

"If you choose the big type (as I anticipate from your letter you are likely to) then you must impress upon Clark that every defect in the printing will be ten times more glaring with the larger than with the smaller. There must be no holes and rivers of white patching the page. As a first step to attain this, the huge gaps left at the beginnings of each sentence on the sample page must be vehemently forbidden. The spaces between the words must be kept as narrow and even as possible: it is better to divide words at the end of the line with hyphens than to spoil the line by excessive spacing merely to “justify” without dividing, as some printers make a point of doing. There should be no greater space between the point at the end of a sentence and the capital, than between the last letter of one word and the first of the next within the sentence. In short, the color of the block of printing should be as even as possible. The printing of the sample couldn’t possibly be worse in this respect."

I guess I could quote a hundred other examples, but readers can delve into any of the sources cited here and find many more for themselves; although you may choose to start with Joseph R. Dunlap's interesting survey of these matters published in The Shavian 2.3 (1961, pp. 4-15), fittingly entitled "The Typographical Shaw: GBS and the Revival of Printing." The full text of the article was also published in The Bulletin of the New York Public Library (Oct. 1960), which you can also read below