A list and commentary – Compiled in answer to a reader.
A correspondent writes from Wakefield asking me to supply ‘a list of books recommended’ by me for the ‘study of Literature, History and Economics. The compilation of any such list, if done with real care and judgement, would take some doing. It would require, for one thing, the jealous exclusion of many books which may make a special appeal to the individual fancy of the compiler, but could hardly be expected to rank among books of general value and interest. For example, I am very fond of browsing in Spalding’s ‘History of the Trubles and Memorable Transactions’; as a youth I greatly enjoyed Deidrich Knickerbocker’s ‘History of New York’ (Deidrich is just Washington Irving); and I can still pass a pleasant hour with Johnson’s Dicctionary. But these represent the byways rather than the highways of literature; and while all must walk the highways, each one should choose his own byways.
Among the byways would be local books such as my Spalding’s ‘Trubles.’ The taste in much byway literature will doubtless often depend upon the reader’s turn for dialects. Personally I love all the dialects of English and Scottish speech, which means that I not only have no difficulty with them, but relish peculiarities as different as the Deveonshire ‘thikky’ for ‘this’ the Lancashire ‘gradely’ for ‘proper,’ the Yorkshire ‘gainest’ for ‘quickest’, the Ayrshire ‘bake’ for ‘biscuit,’ and the Aberdeenshire ‘fell kneggam’ for ‘strong smell.’ George MacDonald’s novels and ‘Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk’ are in different ways, masterpieces, and the former at least has a huge public south of the Tweed, as have also Galt, Miss Ferrier, Crockett and J.M.Barrie. ‘Mannie Wauch’ also is a delightful tale relating to the Lothians. But most of these must be barred from such a list as one has in mind.
Some years ago there was much flourishing of lists in a discussion on ‘The Hundred Best Books,’ stated as ‘The Hundred Best Poems,’ by a New York Journal and taken up by, I think, the London Daily Telegraph. A good deal of what seemed freakishness and a good deal of what was undoubted priggishness found expression at this time. Incidentally, King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, declared a preference for Dryden, who, he thought, had been slighted in the lists sent in.
Of course a hundred books are neither here nor there. There may very well be a thousand ‘best books.’ Schoolboys who go through Collins’s ‘History of English Literature,’ of Spalding’s, or Logie Robertson’s, will feel that a hundred books would represent but a very small proportion of the front-rank authors they have had to review, from Caedmon’s Persephone to the Irish plays and poems of Yeats and Synge. A man of quite moderate leisure may easily read a hundred average-sized books in a year. This weekend with five or six hours of the Saturday and Sunday spent out of doors, I have, among a good deal of writing and other work, read two books of over 450 pages, besides several newspapers, and I have not burned the midnight oil, nor am I a rapid reader.
The present list omits thousands of books that the compiler has read and enjoyed, but that are not to be included in any ‘select’ or ‘choice’ list. As with human beings, so with friends, we have a few lifelong friends and we have hundreds of acquaintances whom it is pleasant to meet, and there are thousands of people whom we meet only once or twice in a lifetime, though we may thoroughly enjoy the brief intercourse with them while it lasts.
Here, then, is my list, which follows the division of subjects suggested by my Wakefield correspondent.
Shakespeare. ‘Others abide our question; thou art free’ (Arnold)
The Bible ‘A remarkable and venerable anthology of fragments of Semitic literature’ (J.Cotter Morison). ‘Barbarous Greek done into divine English’ (referring to the Greek of Septuagint)
Montaigne’s Essays. Bacon’s Essays, Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’
Milton’s ‘Areopagitca’ (prose poetry) and shorter poems.
Selections from The Spectator. Grey’s ‘Elegy,’ Pope. Cowper.
Goldsmith’s Poems and ‘Vicar of Wakefield.’
Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
Burn’s Poems. Life of Burns by J.G.Lockhart.
Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Hood.
Scott’s Novels, not even excepting ‘Count Robert of Paris,’ his least successful. It deals with the vastly interesting Greek Empire and the Varangian Guard at Constantinople.
Macaulay’s Essays, Lays, and History
Carlyle’s ‘Sartor Resartus,’ ‘Heroes and Hero-worship.’ ‘Past and Present,’ and the essays on Burns, Scott and Boswell’s Johnson.
Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia
Emerson’s Essays, Lectures and Poems
Most of Dickens Novels
Thackeray’s ‘Four Georges,’ ‘English Junmorists,’ Esmond’ and ‘The Virginians.’
James Thomson’s ‘City of Dreadful Night,’ and ‘In the room,’
Omar Khyyam, Fitzgerald’s Translation
Watt Dunton’s Essay on Poetry, Encyclopedia Britanica.
Swinburne’s ‘Songs Before Sunrise,’ D.G.Rossetti’s poems.
All of Tennyson. Much of Browning
Charles Reade’s ‘Cloister and Hearth.’
Lytton’s ‘My Novel,’ ‘The Caxtons’, ‘Last Days of Pompei.’
Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ and ‘Descent of Man.’
George Eliot. All her novels except ‘Middlemarch.’
Charles Kingsley’s ‘Westward Ho,’ ‘Hereward the Wake,’ and ‘Notre Dame.’
Renan’s ‘Life of Jesus.’
Dumas ‘Monte Cristo,’ ‘The Black Tulip,’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ series.
Zola ‘The Dram-shop,’ ‘Nana,’ ‘Money,’ ‘Germinal,’ ‘La Terre,’ ‘Dr Pascal,’ and the trilogy ‘Lourdes, Rome, Paris.’
Ruskin. Practically anything the reader can lay hands and find time for. If anything to be omitted, say ‘The Harbours of England,’ most of ‘Fors Clavingera’ and ‘Time and Tide.’
Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture and Anarchy,’ and ‘Celtic Literature.’
Hawthorn’s ‘Scarlet Letter’.
Washingon Irving’s ‘A Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon.’
Morris Prose ‘A Dream of John Ball,’ ‘A King’s Lesson,’ ‘The Aims of Art.’ ‘Art and Socialism’ Poetry – Easier to state what may be omitted, such as the shorter and more modern poems, with ‘Sigurd,’ and the translations of Virgil and Homer. Some of the later poems are very fine, among them, ‘the Burgher’s Battle.’
Calverley’s Parodies. Kipling’s Stories (all of them)
Stevenson. Very nearly all of him. ‘Tales and Fantasies,’ and ‘The Merry Men’ are not quite up to his standard.
G.B.Shaw. Never wrote a dull or unimportant sentence. Novels, plays, essays all entirely momentous and readable.
H.G.Wells. Always supremely full of insight, abounding in felicity of phrase. Scientific, constructive, and in the collection of tales entitled ‘The Country of the Blind,’ represents the last word in quasi-scientific ingenuity, fertility and boundless inventiveness.
Neil Munro (Hugh Fowlis) ‘Erchie,’ ‘Para Handy,’ ‘The Vital Spark,’ ‘Jimmy Swan’ and ‘The Daft Days.’ The most nimble and versatile of all Scottish writers in the foregoing books which are in a quite different category from the same writer’s ‘John Splendid,’ Gillian the Dreamer,’ Fancy Farm’ and ‘The New Road.’ These may be omitted.
Irish Literature. J.M.Synge, Lady Gregory and W.B.Yeats.
‘The History of Political Economy’ by J.K.Ingram, Professor of Political Economy in Dublin University. This author (who is a Socialist) contributes the article on Political Economy to the Encyclopedia Brittannica. That article may be read instead of the book, which is now, I believe , scarce.
‘Communal and Commercial Economy,’ by John Carruthers. This book, also scarce, has as summary a pamphlet ‘The Political Economy of Socialism.’
Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations.’
Mill’s ‘Principles of Political Economy.’
Laurence Grunlund’s ‘Cooperative Commonwealth.’ (has been called the New Testament of Socialism.)
The Student’s Marx. Aveling
Henry George’s ‘Poverty and Progress.’
Sir Leo Chiozza-Money’s ‘Riches and Poverty.’
Ruskin’s ‘Unto this last.’
Spencer’s ‘The Study of Sociology.’
Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ and its sequel ‘Equality.’
Morris’s ‘News from Nowhere.’
Green’s ‘Short History of the English People.’
Scott’s ‘Tales of a Grandfather.’
Torold Rogers ‘Six Centuries of Work and Wages.’
Justin McCarthy’s ‘History of our own Times.’
‘The Rise of the Dutch Empire,’ J.L.Motley.
Carlyle’s ‘French Revolution.’
Plutarch’s Lives. Langhorne’s translation.
The student will probably be struck with the number of omissions – notable omissions he may perhaps think. There is no Chaucer, Rabelais, Racine, Moliere, Plato or Dante, no Rousseau or Balzac, no Goethe or Lewing, or Wincklemann, no Hans Anderson, Grimm, Ibsen, Brandes or St Beuve. But this is not a student’s list – unless, indeed, he is a beginner. General literature is largely represented, and it is largely represented by novelists and poets at that. But if we could see the general reader with these books on his shelves, were in only as passing we should feel we were getting on in the development of intellectual interests.
When all is said, Literature of all subjects is least to be taught by tabloid. A lifetime and a temperament are required for it.
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