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Wells, Tono-Bungay
Reading: Tono-Bungay, by H. G. Wells

Read because Wells was a presence in my family (I read some of his sf while a child, and I recall a book of his stories bearing a picture of him with a twinkle in his eye), because the book was widely praised (by Orwell & others), and because of a striking quotation in Russell & Russell's charming picture book On the Loose, which I have liked for forty years.

The narrator, brought up as a servants' child in a stately home of England, is taken in by an uncle who makes a fortune in patent medicines and parlays it into an immense speculative empire that eventually crashes.  He is criminally liable & dies in exile.  The nephew helps him now & then, and uses some of his money for experiments in the new science of aeronautics.  The action takes place around 1910, but is topical insomuch as we have recently been reminded that the busy rich can be a greater economic & moral burden on society than the idle poor.  Thus, it is helpful in describing how human beings, not initially or ever entirely depraved, can get trapped in that kind of behavior.  The moral is not their wickedness, but the decadence of Western civilization (in 1910!), which encourages wastefulness in general.

Most of the book, however, is not concerned with the uncle's machinations, which are described rather sketchily, but with the nephew's & some others' love affairs, a subject on which I am ignorant & anesthetic.  There are also a couple of adventures:  The nephew attempts to rescue his uncle from bankruptcy by stealing some valuable ore from Africa, which, being radioactive, rots the boat & sinks it.  He also flies his uncle to France in an amusing hybrid of dirigible & airplane.

The book did not hang together well for me, tho it must have for people more familiar with the milieu & with neurotypicals.  The best part, for me, remains the passage I read in 1970:

But in these plethoric times when there is too much coarse stuff for everybody and the struggle for life takes the form of competitive advertisement and the effort to fill your neighbour's eye, when there is no urgent demand either for personal courage, sound nerves or stark beauty, we find ourselves by accident. Always before these times the bulk of the people did not over-eat themselves, because they couldn't, whether they wanted to do so or not, and all but a very few were kept "fit" by unavoidable exercise and personal danger. Now, if only he pitch his standard low enough and keep free from pride, almost any one can achieve a sort of excess. You can go through contemporary life fudging and evading, indulging and slacking, never really hungry nor frightened nor passionately stirred, your highest moment a mere sentimental orgasm, and your first real contact with primary and elemental necessities, the sweat of your death-bed. So I think it was with my uncle; so, very nearly, it was with me.