From The Pleasures of Life, by Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M. P., F. R. S., D. C. L., LL. D.; New York : John B. Alden, Publisher, 1887; pp. 40-52.
THE CHOICE OF BOOKS.1
“All round the room my silent servants wait —
My friends in every season, bright and dim,
Angels and Seraphim
Come down and murmur to me, sweet and low,
And spirits of the skies all come and go
Early and Late.”
AND yet too often they wait in vain. One reason for this is, I think, that people are overwhelmed by the crowd of books offered to them. There are books and books, and there are books which, as Lamb said, are not books at all.
In old days books were rare and dear. Our ancestors had a difficulty in procuring them. Our difficulty now is what to select. We must be careful what we read, and not like the sailors of Ulysses, take bags of wind for sacks of treasure — not only lest we should even now fall into the error of the Greeks and suppose that language and definitions can be instruments of investigation as well as of thought, but lest, as too often happens, we should waste time over trash. There are many books to which one may apply, in the sarcastic sense the ambiguous remark said to have been made to an unfortunate author, “I will lose no time in reading your book.”
It is wonderful indeed how much innocent happiness we thoughtlessly throw away. An Eastern proverb says that calamities sent by heaven may be avoided, but from those we bring on ourselves there is no escape.41
Many, I believe, are deterred from attempting what are called stiff books for fear they should not understand them; but, as Hobbes said, there are few who need complain of the narrowness of their minds, if only they would do their best with them.
In reading, however, it is most important to select subjects in which one is interested. I remember years ago consulting Mr. Darwin as to the selection of a course of study. He asked me what interested me most, and advised me to choose that subject. This, indeed, applies to the work of life generally.
I am sometimes disposed to think that the great readers of the next generation will be, not our lawyers and doctors, shopkeepers and manufacturers, but the laborers and mechanics. Does not this seem natural? The former work mainly with their head; when their daily duties are over the brain is often exhausted, and of their leisure time much must be devoted to air and exercise. The laborer and mechanic, on the contrary, besides working often for much shorter hours, have in their work-time taken sufficient bodily exercise, and could therefore give any leisure they might have to reading and study. They have not done so as yet, it is true; but this has been for obvious reasons. Now, however, in the first place, they receive an excellent education in elementary schools, and in the second have more easy access to the best books.
Ruskin has observed he does not wonder at what men suffer, but he often wonders at what they lose. We suffer much, no doubt, from the faults of others, but we lose much more by our own ignorance.
It is one thing to own a library; it is, however, another to use it wisely. “If,” says John Herschel, “I were to pray for a taste which should stand me in stead under every 42 variety of circumstances, and be a source of happiness and cheerfulness to me through life, and a shield against its ills, however, things might go amiss and the world frown upon me, it would be a taste for reading. I speak of it of course only as a worldly advantage, and not in the slightest degree as superseding or derogating from the higher office and surer and stronger panoply of religious principles — but as a taste, an instrument, and a mode of pleasurable gratification. Give a man this taste, and the means of gratifying it, and you can hardly fail of making a happy man, unless, indeed, you put into his hands a most perverse selection of books.
I have often been astonished how little care people devote to the selection of what they read. Books, we know, are almost innumerable; our hours for reading are, alas ! very few. And yet many people read almost by hazard. They will take any book they chance to find in a room at a friend’s house; they will buy a novel at a railway-stall if it has an attractive title; indeed, I believe in some cases even the binding affects their choice. The selection is, no doubt, far from easy. I have often wished some one would recommend a list of a hundred good books,. If we has such lists drawn up by a few good guides they would be most useful. I have indeed sometimes heard it said that in reading every one must choose for himself, but this reminds me of the recommendation not to go into the water till you can swim.
In the absence of such lists I have picked out the books most frequently mentioned with approval by those who have referred directly or indirectly to the pleasure of reading, and have ventured to include some which, though less frequently mentioned, are especial favorites of my own. Every one who looks at the 43 list will wish to suggest other books, as indeed I should myself, but in that case the number would soon run up.2
I have abstained, for obvious reasons, from mentioning works by living authors, though from many of them — Tennyson, Ruskin, and others — I have myself derived the keenest enjoyment; and have omitted works on science, with one or two exceptions, because the subject is so progressive.
I feel that the attempt is over bold, and I must beg for indulgence; but indeed one object which I had in view is to stimulate others more competent far than I am to give us the advantage of their opinions.
Moreover, I must repeat that I suggest these works rather as those which, as far as I have seen, have been most frequently recommended, than as suggestions of my own, though I have slipped in a few of my own special favorites.
In the absence of such lists we may fall back on the general verdict of mankind. There is a “struggle for existence” and a “survival of the fittest” among books, as well as among animals and plants. As Alonzo of Aragon said, “Age is a recommendation in four things — old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old books to read.” Still, this cannot be accepted without important qualifications. The most recent books of history and science contain, or ought to contain, the most accurate information and the most trustworthy conclusions. Moreover, while the books of other races and times have an interest from their very distance, it must be admitted that many will still more enjoy, 44 and feel more at home with, those of our own century and people.
Yet the oldest books of the world are remarkable and interesting on account of their very age; and the works which have influenced the opinions, or charmed the leisure hours, of millions of men in distant times and far-away regions are well worth reading on that very account, even if they seem scarcely to deserve their reputation. It is true that to many of us such works are accessible only in translations; but translations, though they can never perhaps do justice to the original, may yet be admirable in themselves. The Bible itself, which must stand first in the list, is a conclusive case.
At the head of all non-Christian moralists, I must place the Enchiridion of Epictetus, certainly one of the noblest books in the whole of literature; so short, moreover, so accessible, and so well translated that it is always a source of wonder to me that it is so little read. With Epictetus I think must come Marcus Aurelius. The Analects of Confucius will, I believe, prove disappoint to most English readers, but the effect it has produced on the most numerous race of men constitutes in itself a peculiar interest. The Ethics of Aristotle, perhaps, appear to some disadvantage from the very fact that they have so profoundly influenced our view of morality. The Koran, like the Analects of Confucius, will to most of us derive its principal interest from the effect it has exercised, and still exercises on so many millions of our fellow-men. I doubt whether in any other respect it will seem to repay perusal, and to most persons probably certain extracts, not too numerous, would appear sufficient.
The writings of the Apostolic Fathers have been collected in one volume by Wake. It is 45 but a small one, and though I must humbly confess that I was disappointed, they are perhaps all the more curious from the contrast they afford to those of the Apostles themselves. Of the later Fathers I have included only the Confessions of St. Augustine, which Dr. Pusey selected for the commencement of the Library of the Fathers, and which, as he observes, has “been translated again and again into almost every European language, and in all loved;” though Luther was of the opinion that he “wrote nothing to the purpose concerning faith;” but then Luther was no great admirer of the Fathers. St. Jerome, he says, “writes, alas ! very coldly;” Chrysostom “digresses from the chief points;” St. Jerome is “very poor;” and, in fact, he says, “the more I read the books of the Fathers the more I find myself offended;” while Renan, in his interesting autobiography, compared theology to a Gothic Cathedral, “elle a la grandeur, les vides immenses, et le peu de solidité.”
Among other devotional works most frequently recommended are Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, Pascal’s Pensées, Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying, Keble’s beautiful Christian Year, and last, not least, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
Aristotle and Plato again stand at the head of another class. The Politics of Aristotle, and Plato’s Dialogues, if not the whole, at any rate the Phædo, the Apology, and the Republic, will be of course read by all who with to know anything of the history of human thought, though I am heretical enough to doubt whether the latter repays the minute and laborious study often devoted to it.
Aristotle being the father, if not the creator, of the modern scientific method, it has followed 46 naturally — indeed, almost inevitably — that his principles have become part of our very intellectual being, so that they seem now almost self-evident, while his actual observations, though very remarkable, as, for instance, when he observes that bees on one journey confine themselves to one kind of flower — still have been in many cases superseded by others. We must not be ungrateful to the great master, because his own lessons have taught us how to advance.
Plato, on the other hand, I say so with all respect, seems to me in some cases to play on words : his arguments are very able, very philosophical, often very noble; but not always conclusive; in a language differently constructed they might sometimes tell in exactly the opposite sense. If this method has proved less fruitful, if in metaphysics we have made but little advance, that very fact in one point of view leaves the Dialogues of Socrates as instructive now as ever they were; while the problems with which they deal will always rouse our interest, as the calm and lofty spirit which inspires them must command our admiration.
I would also mention Demosthenes’s De Corona which Lord Brougham pronounced the greatest oration of the greatest of orators; Lucretius, Plutarch’s Lives, Horace, and at lest the De Officiis, De Amicitia and De Senectute of Cicero.
The great epics of the world have always constituted one of the most popular branches of literature. Yet how few, comparatively, ever read the Iliad or Odyssey, Hesiod or Virgil, after leaving school.
The Nibelungenlied, our great Anglo-Saxon epic, is perhaps too much neglected, no doubt on account of its painful character. Brunhild 47 and Kriemhild, indeed, are far from perfect, but we meet with few such “live” women in Greek or Roman literature. Nor must I omit to mention Sir T. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, though I confess I do so mainly in deference to the judgment of others.
Among the Greek tragedians, Æschylus, if not all his works, at any rate Prometheus, perhaps the sublimest poem in Greek literature, and the Trilogy (Mr. Symonds in his Greek Poets speaks of the “unrivaled majesty” of the Agamemnon, and Mark Pattison considered it “the grandest work of creative genius in the whole range of literature”); or, as Mr. Grant Duff recommends, the Persæ ; Sophocles (Œdipus Tyrannus), Euripides (Medea), and Aristophanes (The Knights and Clouds); Schlegel says that probably even the greatest scholar does not understand half his jokes; though I think most modern readers will prefer our modern poets.
I should lie, moreover, to say a word for Eastern poetry, such as portions of the Maha Bharata and Ramayana (too long probably to be read through, but of which Talboys Wheeler has given a most interesting epitome in the two first volumes of his History of India); the Shah-nameh, the work of the great Persian poet, Firdusi; and the Sheking, the classical collection of ancient Chinese odes. Many, I know, will think I ought to have included Omar Khayyam.
In history we are beginning to feel that the vices and vicissitudes of kings and queens, the dates of battles and wars, are far less important than the development of human thought, the progress of art, of science, and of law, and the subject is on that very account even more interesting than ever. I will, however, only mention, and that rather from a literary than a historical point of view, Herodotus, 48 Xenophon, (the Anabasis), Thucydides, and Tacitus (Germania); and of modern historians, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Hume’s History of England, Carlyle’s French Revolution, Grote’s History of Greece, and Green’s Short History of the English People.
Science is so rapidly progressive that, though to many minds it is the most fruitful and interesting subject of all, I cannot here rest on that agreement which, rather than my own opinion, I take as the basis of my list. I will therefore only mention Bacon’s Novum Organum, Mill’s Logic, and Darwin’s Origin of Species ; in Political Economy, which some of our rulers now scarcely seem sufficiently to value, Mill, and parts of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, for probably those who do not intend to make a special study of political economy would scarcely read the whole.
Among voyages and travels, perhaps those most frequently suggested are Cook’s Voyages, Humboldt’s Travels, and Darwin’s Naturalist’s Journal ; though I confess I should like to have added many more.
Mr. Bright not long ago specially recommended the less known American poets, but he probably assumed that every one would have read Shakespeare, Milton (Paradise Lost, Lycidas and minor poems), Chaucer, Dante, Spenser, Dryden, Scott, Wordsworth, Pope, Southey, Byron, and others, before embarking on more doubtful adventures.
Among other books most frequently recommended are Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, Don Quixote, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, White’s Natural History of Selborne, Burke’s Select Works (Payne), the Essays of Bacon, Addison, Hume, Montaigne, Macaulay, and Emerson; the plays of Molière and Sheridan; Carlyle’s Past and Present, 49 Smile’s Self-Help, and Goethe’s Faust and Autobiography.
Nor can one go wrong in recommending Berkeley’s Human Knowledge, Descartes’s Discours sur la Méthode, Locke’s Conduct of the Understanding, Lewes’s History of Philosophy ; while, in order to keep within the number of one hundred, I can only mention Molière and Sheridan among dramatists. Macaulay considered Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne the best novel in any language, but my number is so nearly complete that I must content myself with English : and will suggest Miss Austen (either Emma or Pride and Prejudice), Thackeray (Vanity Fair and Pendennis), Dickens Pickwick and David Copperfield), G. Eliot (Adam Bede or The Mill on the Floss), Kingsley (Westward Ho ! , Lytton (Last Days of Pompeii), and last, not least, those of Scott, which indeed constitute a library in themselves, but which I must ask, in return for my trouble, to be allowed, as a special favor, to count as one.
To any lover of books, the very mention of these names brings back a crowd of delicious memories, grateful recollections of peaceful home hours, after the labors and anxieties of the day. How thankful we ought to be for these inestimable blessings, for this numberless host of friends who never weary, betray or forsake us!
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
Analects of Confucius
50 St. Hilaire’s “Le Bouddha et sa religion”
Wake’s Apostolic Fathers
Thos. à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ
Confessions of St. Augustine (Dr. Pusey)
The Koran (portions of)
Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
Comte’s Catechism of Positive Philosophy
Butler’s Analogy of Religion
Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying
Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
Keble’s Christian Year
Plato’s Dialogues; at any rate, the Apology, Phædo, and Republic
Demosthene’s De Corona
Cicero’s De Officiis, De Amicitia, and de Senectute
Berkeley’s Human Knowledge
Descartes’s Discours sur la Méthode
Locke’s On the Conduct of the Understanding
Epitomized in Talboys Wheeler’s History of India, vols. i. and ii.:
The Shahnameh The Nibelungenlied
Malory’s Morte d’Arthur
Trilogy of Orestes
Aristophanes’s The Knights and Clouds
51 Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Perhaps in Morris’s edition; or, if expurgated, in C. Clarke’s, or Mrs. Haweis’s)
Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lycidas, and the shorter poems
Dante’s Divina Commedia
Spenser’s Fairie Queen
Wordsworth (Mr. Arnold’s selection)
Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer, the Curse of Kehama
Pope’s Essay on Criticism
Essay on Man
Rape of the Lock
Byron’s Childe Harold
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
Hume’s History of England
Grote’s History of Greece
Carlyle’s French Revolution
Green’s Short History of England
Lewes’s History of Philosophy
Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield
Cervante’s Don Quixote
Boswell’s Life of Johnson
52 Sheridan’s The Critic, School for Scandal, and The Rivals
Carlyle’s Past and Present
Bacon’s Novum Organum
Smith’s Wealth of Nations (part of)
Mill’s Political Economy
White’s Natural History of Selborne
Darwin’s Origin of Species
Burke’s Select works
Goethe’s Faust, and Autobiography
Miss Austen’s Emma, or Pride and Prejudice
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair
Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii
George Eliot’s Adam Bede
Kingsley’s Westward Ho!
1 Delivered at the London Workingmen’s College.
2 Several longer lists have been given; for instance, by Comte, Catechism of Positive Philosophy ; Pycroft, Course of English Reading ; Baldwin, The Book Lover ; and Perkins, The Best Reading ; and by Mr. Ireland, Books for General Readers.