World Brain, by H. G. Wells

Appendix 5. — The English-speaking World: “As I See it”

Broadcast talk delivered December 1st, 1937

I FIND myself on the air for the Empire broadcasting service — free to speak for a quarter of an hour on practically any subject that occurs to me — under this most liberating title of As I See it. I suggest that, As I Think about it, would have been a better title. What I see is a brightly lit desk, a lamp, a microphone in a pleasantly furnished room — and a listener, for I never talk for broadcasting without a real live listener actually in the room with me — but what I am thinking about is a great number of listeners, some alone, some in groups, in all sorts of rooms and places, all round the world. We are, I guess, an extremely various and scattered lot indeed, race, religion, colour, age. We have probably only one thing in common. Which is that we speak, write and understand English.

I want to talk about ourselves and the community to which we belong. I see that as a tremendous world brotherhood full of possibilities and full of promise for the hope, the peace, the common understanding of all mankind.

I have been asked by the Empire Broadcasting Service to make this talk, but it is, you must understand, a quite uncontrolled talk or I would not give it. I hold no brief for the Empire as such; it is a complex of political arrangements, which are constantly changing and will continue to change. Widely as it extends, it does not include the larger part of this English-speaking brotherhood of ours, which is to my mind something infinitely more real, more important and more permanent. I am talking reality — not propaganda.

I spent this autumn in the United States. I was lecturing there about intellectual organisation in schools and universities and I talked with all sorts of people from the President and Mr. Henry Ford downward. We all talked the same language, in the same idiom of thought. We understood each other pretty thoroughly. Yet we are drawn from the most diverse sources. It is a common mistake among English people to suppose that Americans are just English people transplanted. But from the very beginning the United States were of diverse origin. The Swedes, the Dutch, Germans, the French in Louisiana, the Spanish i.n California, were there as soon as the New Englanders, long before the War of Independence. Afterwards there was an enormous influx of Eastern Europeans. And again in the British Empire itself, there is a great assembly of once alien peoples drawn together into a common interchange — from the Eskimo of the Labrador Coast to the Maori of New Zealand. But the English language has amalgamated — or is amalgamating-all these elements into a great cosmopolis, whose citizens can write to each other, read and understand each other, speak freely and plainly to each other, exchange, acquire and modify ideas with a minimum of difficulty. Once or twice before in history there has been such a synthesis in the Latin-speaking world, in the Semitic-speaking world, but never on such a vast scale as in this English-speaking world in which we live and think today. And English has never been forced upon these multitudes who speak it now, they were never subdued to it or humiliated by it, they have taken it up freely and they use it of their own good-will because it serves them best. Now a thing that impresses me greatly, it seems to me one of the most important things in our present world, is that this English-speaking community is not breaking up and does not look like breaking up, into different languages. In the past that sort of thing did occur. Latin, as you know, broke up into French, Italian, Castilian, Catalan and a multitude of minor dialects. But since then a vast change has occurred in the conditions of human life; the forces of separation have been dwindling, the forces that bring us nearer to one another have been increasing enormously, the printed word, books, newspapers, the talking movie, the radio, increasing travel, increasing trade, now forbid dispersal. History has gone into reverse. Instead of being scattered about the earth and forgetting one another, a thing which happened to the Aryan speakers and the Mongolian speakers of the past, we English speakers are being drawn together and learning more and more about each other. This reversal of the old order of things has been going on ever since the steamship and the railways appeared, a century ago. It goes on faster and faster. In the past new dialects were continually appearing; new dialects are disappearing. The curse of Babel has been lifted from over three hundred million people. This coming together is a new thing in human experience. And having got this unprecedented instrument of thought spread all about the world, a net of understanding, what are we English speakers doing with it to get the best out of it? Are we getting the best out of it?

Are we growing into one mighty community of ideas and sympathies and help and peace as rapidly as we might do? I do not think we are. Something, I admit, is being done to realise the tremendous opportunity of the world-wide spreading of the English language, but nothing like what might be done, if we grasped our possibilities to the full.

Let me tell you as briefly as I can one or two of the things that might be done to make this great gift of a common language better worth while. They are things every one of us in this talk tonight can set about demanding at once. You can write to your representative or member of parliament about them before you go to bed.

First about books. Nothing can pull our minds together as powerfully as books. We all want to read books according to our interests and habits. We find them so dear to buy or so difficult to borrow that most of us cannot read half the books we hear about. And three-quarters of what books there are, we never hear about at all. This is true even here in London. Here I am on the telephone to well-stored book shops and all sorts of people from whom I can get advice. Even so it is true here. But a majority of my listeners tonight may be living in parts of the Empire far away from the centres of book distribution. Mentally many of them must suffer the torments of Tantalus. They perceive there is a great and refreshing flood of ideas, imaginative, informative matter, fantasy, poetical invention flowing through the English world and they Call get only just a splash or so of it to their thirsty lips. In Great Britain in the larger towns you can buy a fair selection of the best books published, even quite new books, for from sixpence to a shilling. But in America there are no really cheap books and the great mass of the workers and poor people there, never read books at all. There are public libraries, of course, where you can wait for books for quite a long time. Most of our 300,000,000 English speakers, through no fault of their own, read nothing better than a few odd books that chance to come their way. They never acquire the habit of systematic book reading. English, which should be the key of all human thought and knowledge, is for them the key to a non-existent door.

The reading, thinking section, the book-reading section, of the Empire probably does not number a million all told. The rest either read newspapers or do not read at all.

Now before you blame the public or the schools or the booksellers for this immense illiteracy, this great mental underdevelopment, consider the difficulties of sending books about. Try sending a book, a good fat book, half-way round the world and see what it costs you. You will realise that a special low postal rate for books and parcels of books, a special preference rate, a rate to encourage the sending of books, is one of the first things necessary before we can begin to realise the full cultural promise of our widespread English tongue. It is a matter that should concern every Ministry of Education. Does it?

Given such rates you’ll soon rind every publisher in the world building bigger printing plants and selling books for sixpence — almost as soon as they are issued. But book postage is not considered a public service. It is made a source of revenue and until people like ourselves who read and listen in and want to know begin to make a fuss about it, matters will remain very much as they are.

Cheap good books — and next comes the problem of how to hear of them — so that we may — from the ends of the earth — order the ones we really want and spend our sixpences properly. Well, probably half my hearers have never heard of what is called documentation, and they think bibliography is something remote and scholastic and all that sort of thing. But really it is nothing more or less than indexing all that has been written in the world, so that you can find out quickly and surely what has been done, by whom, and under what title. Don’t you want to know that? And do you know it? There are hundreds of clever people working out methods of indexing and in a little while it will be quite possible to print and keep up-to-date bibliographies, lists of all the best books, in every great group of subjects in the world. It would be as easy to keep up such bibliography as it is to keep up the issue of railway time-tables. The cost of producing these book guides need not be very much greater than the cost of producing those time-tables. I doubt if today a hundred thousand of us use any bibliographies at all. What is the good of reading unless you know what books to read? Bibliographies ought to lie about in every educated household.

And another thing which we English speakers have a right to ask for, considering what a vast multitude we are and all that we might be, and that is a general summary of contemporary knowledge and ideas, a real modern, adequate Encyclopaedia, kept up to date and available for the use of any one. That would hold us all together as nothing else would do. We should all be of a mind and nothing on earth would have the strength to stand against our thinking. But is there anything of the sort? No. The latest Encyclopaedia in my study is dated 1929 — eight years old — and it is a very imperfect performance at that. Very old-fashioned. Very little better than the Encyclopaedias of a hundred years ago. Discovery and invention have been going on vigorously for the past eight years — but how am I to learn quickly about that new stuff? There is not a sign of a new one in sight. Does any one care — any of our education departments? Not a rap. The French just now — in spite of threats of war, in spite of great financial difficulties are making a new and a very admirably planned Encyclopaedia. You may think an Encyclopaedia is something only rich people can afford to buy. It ought not to be. If you can afford a radio set, if you can afford a motor-car, surely you can afford a summary of human thought and knowledge. Encyclopaedias need not be as dear as they are, any more than books or bibliographies. Cheaper books, handy bibliographies, a great encyclopaedia, our English-speaking world needs all these things. When automobiles first came along, they seemed likely to become a rich man’s monopoly. They cost upwards of £1,000. Henry Ford altered all that. He put the poor man on the road. We want a Henry Ford today to modernise the distribution of knowledge, make good knowledge cheap and easy in this still very ignorant, ill-educated, ill-served English-speaking world of ours. Which might be the greatest power on earth for the consolidation of humanity and the establishing of an enduring creative Pax for all mankind.

My quarter of an hour is at an end. I haven’t said half of what I would like to say. But if I have made you a little discontented with what we are doing with this precious inheritance of ours — English, I shall not have used this bit of time in vain.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
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