Something I read recently (I don’t remember what) reminded me that I still hadn’t gotten around to reading about Distributism, which proposes an economics that is neither capitalist nor socialist. So I poked around and found what looked like the most important books about Distributism, namely An Essay on the Restoration of Property, Economics for Helen, and The Servile State, all by Hilaire Belloc, and The Outline of Sanity by G.K. Chesterton. Hoping for something a bit lighter than what I’ve been reading lately, I started with Chesterton.
I was disappointed with the book, although it may be my own fault. Chesterton has his own style, one that enamors him greatly to his fans. And I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Chesterton in the past (The Man Who Was Thursday and Orthodoxy). But as I read this book I came to despise his deliberate unwillingness to get to the point. I wasn’t interested in reading Chesterton for his own sake, but for learning about Distributism. But in the book he says only a few fundamental things about Distributism, things that could have been stated in a few pages. In fact, he goes ahead and restates them in the short final chapter—and even there he goes on at unnecessary length.
As I said, my disappointment is largely my own fault. I suppose any Chesterton fan would be delighted by this book; Chesterton is clearly delighted by his own words. And that was the sticking point for me. The clever analogies went on way too long, the carefully turned phrases seemed to be turned just for the sake of turning them, and the pointed responses to critics seemed mostly pointless. As I read, I remembered that these were newspaper essays, and I wondered if GKC was being paid by the word. Anyway, I wasn’t enjoying the writing for its own sake, and as a result it just got in the way of what I would have really enjoyed, namely a simple explanation of the details of Distributism.
This paragraph from the summary chapter more or less sums up the problem, with the usual Chestertonian twist:
Now in this book I am well aware that there are many digressions that may not at first sight seem to be necessary. For I have had to construct it out of what was originally a sort of controversial causerie; and it has proved impossible to cut down the causerie and only leave the controversy. Moreover, no man can controvert with many foes without going into many subjects, as everyone knows who has been heckled. And on this occasion I was, I am happy to say, being heckled by many foes who were also friends. I was discharging the double function of writing essays and of talking over the tea table, or preferably over the tavern table. To turn this sort of mixture of a gossip and a gospel into anything like a grammar of Distributism has been quite impossible. But I fancy that, even considered as a string of essays, it appears more inconsequential than it really is; and many may read the essays without quite seeing the string. I have decided, therefore, to add this last essay merely in order to sum up the intention of the whole; even if the summary be only a recapitulation. I have had a reason for many of my digressions, which may not appear until the whole is seen in some sort of perspective; and where the digression has no such justification, but was due to a desire to answer a friend or (what is even worse) a disposition towards idle and unseemly mirth, I can only apologize to the scientific reader and promise to do my best to make this final summary as dull as possible.
Well, after 170 pages of this sort of thing it was sounding to me like GKC was on automatic pilot, churning out the words because that’s the sort of thing GKC does, as well as the sort of thing that his fans expect. But I suppose it may be sheer grumpiness on my part to think so.