The Best Hundred Books

“(The ‘hundred best books for the schoolroom’ may be put down on a list, but not by me. I venture to propose one or two principles in the matter of school-books, and shall leave the far more difficult part, the application of those principles, to the reader. For example, I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated. I do not mean to say that the lecture and the oral lesson are without their uses; but these uses are, to give impulse and to order knowledge; and not to convey knowledge, or to afford us that part of our education which comes of fit knowledge, fitly given.~ Charlotte Mason

I always thought, when I read this, that is inveigling about making a list of the books at any time for any reason, but I don’t think so. I think she is referring to a specific little brouhaha or tempest happening in her circles and those of her readers at that time.
Sir John Lubbock published such a list in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1886, and the editor invited others to make their own contributions, and what followed was a rather vigorous back and forth discussion on what the best books really were, and others weighed in with their editorial additions and omissions.  The original is apparently not easily come by, but the Westerminster Review in the same year published Sir John Lubbock’s revised list (his original omitted the Bible, among other things) along with substantial excerpts from the original, and some quotes from three other essays on books and reading.

It is that Westminster Review summary that is extensively, yet still only partially, laid out below. I think most of it will be of little interest to those who aren’t just fascinated by all contextual clues to Charlotte Mason, Victoriana in general, and booklists at large. There are some gems, even if you fall outside those sets of a Venn diagram. Ruskin’s remarks are just funny, although I don’t believe he meant to be. But you needn’t read it all, just reading half a dozen responses gives one some ideas about why Miss Mason excused herself from providing a similar list for the school-room!

ART. VI.—WHAT AND HOW TO READ.

1. Pall Mall Gazette “Extra,” No. 24. The Best Hundred Books. By the Best Judges. London : Pall Mall Gazette Office. 1886.

2. The Pleasures, the Dangers, and the Uses of Desultory Reading. By the Right Hon. the EARL OF IDDESLEIGH. London : Kegan Paul, Trench & Ca 1885.

3. The Choice of Books; and other Literary Pieces. By FREDERIC HARMON. London : Macmillan & Co. 1886.

4. The Pleasures of a Bookworm. By J. ROGERS REES. London : Elliot Stock. 1886.

 

“THE choice of books,” says Mr. F. Harrison, “is really the choice of our education, of a moral and intellectual ideal, of the whole duty of man.” – If we of the present day go wrong in our choice, it is not for want of warning, for we are deluged with advice as to what books we should read, and how we should read them. This deluge began in November last by Lord Iddesleigh’s “desultory discourse,’ as he calls it, delivered, as Lord Rector of Edinburgh University, to the students. It is published, with a few additions, under the title named at the head of this article. Sir John Lubbock in the December following made the choice of books the subject of his address, as President of the Working Men’s College, to the members of the College, and followed it up by publishing in the Contemporary Review a list of “The Beat Hundred Books,” which he afterwards revised. Mr. Frederic Harrison also gives us his advice on the choice of books, ” founded on the basis of Auguste Comte’s library ;” and lastly, Mr. J. Rogers Rees in the

course of the spring gave to the world the interesting little volume which he calls “The Pleasures of a Bookworm.” When Sir John Lubbock’s list came out, the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette gratified his passion for curious investigation, and undertook the task of submitting Sir John’s list to a variety of men eminent in society and literature, and asking for their opinions and criticisms, and for a list of what each of them considered the hundred best books. These opinions and criticisms now form the pamphlet entitled “The Best Hundred Books.” Sir John’s list, as finally revised by himself, stands thus:—

1. The Bible.
2. Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations.”
3. Epictetus.
4. Confucius, ” Analects.”
5. “Le Bouddha et as Religion” (St. Hilaire.)
6. Aristotle, ” Ethics.”
7. Mahomet, “Koran.”
8. ” Apostolic Fathers,” Wake’s Col-lection. ‘
9. St. Augustine, ” Confessions.”
10. Thomas a Kempis, ” Imitation.”
11. Pascal, “Penses”
12. Spinoza ” Tractatus Theologico-politicus.”
13. Comte, “Catechism of Positive Philosophy ” (Congreve).
14. Butler, “Analogy.”
15. Jeremy Taylor, “Holy Living and Holy Dying.”
16. Bunyan, “Pilgrim’s Progress”
17. Keble, “Christian Year.”
18. Aristotle, ” Politics.”
19. Plato’s Dialogues ; at any rate, the Phaedo ” and ” Republic.”
20. Demosthenes, ” De Corona.”
21. Lucretius..
22. Plutarch.
23. Horace.
24. Cicero, ” De officialis,” ” De Amiaitii,” “De Senectate.”
25. Homer, “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”
26. Hesiod.
27. Virgil.
28. Niebelungenlied.
29. Malory, ” Morte d’Arthar.”
30. “Maha Bharat;” ” Ramayana.” Epitomised by Talboys Wheeler in the first two vols. of his ” History of India.”
31. Firduai, “Shahnameb.”
32. “Sheking ” (Chinese Odes).

33. Aeschylus, ” Prometheus,” ” House of Atreus,” “Trilogy,” or ” Persae).”
34. Sophocles, ” OEdipus Trilogy.”
35. Euripides, ” Media”
36. Aristophanes, “The Knights.”
37. Herodotus.

38. Xenophon, ” Anabasis.”
39. Thucydides.
40. Tacitus, “Germania.”
41. Livy.
42. Gibbon, ” Decline and FalL”
43. Hume, ” England.”
44. Grote, ” Greece.”
45. Carlyle, ” French Revolution.”
46. Green, ” Short History of Eng-land.”
47. Bacon, “Novum Organum.”
48. Mill, ” Logic.”
49.  (Also John Stuart Mill) “Political Economy.”
50. Darwin, ” Origin of Species.”
51. Smith, “Wealth of Nations” (part of.)
52. Berkeley, ” Human Knowledge’
53. Descartes, ” Discours sur la  Methode.”
54. Locke, “Conduct of the Under-standing.”
55. Lewes, ” History of Philosophy.”
56. Cook’s Voyages.
57. Humboldt’s ‘Travels.
58. Darwin, “Naturalist on the Beagle.”
59. Shakespeare.
60. Milton, ” Paradise Lost ” and the shorter poems.
61. Dante, “Divine Commedia.”
62. Spenser. “Faerie Queen.”
63. Dryden’s Poem.,
64. Chaucer: Morris’s, or (if expurgated) Clarke’s, or Mrs. Haweis’ edition.
65. Gray.
66. Burns.

In the outset of our remarks we wish each of our readers to ask himself or herself two questions—(1) Have I read, not these hundred books, but any hundred books ? (2) Do I know any one who has read a hundred books? With regard to Sir John’s list, it has been mischievously suggested, ” Why not send a confidential interviewer to ask Sir John Lubbock whether he has read all his hundred books; and if not, why not? ”

Mr. Frederic Harrison makes some true remarks on the readers and reading of the present day : “Even those who are resolved to read the better books are embarrassed by a field of choice practically boundless…. Systematic reading is but little in favour even amongst studious men ; in a true sense, it is hardly possible for women.” What follows is, we fear, but too  true :

If any person given to reading were honestly to keep a register of all the printed stuff that he or she consumes in a year—all the idle tales of which the very names and the story are forgotten in a week—the bookmaker’s prattle at so much a sheet, the fugitive trifling about silly things and empty people, the memoirs of the unmemorable, and lives of those who never really lived at all—of what a mountain of rubbish would it be a catalogue !

We have not at hand Sir John Lubbock’s address at the Working Men’s College, but we presume his list is intended for working men, and if so, we agree with Mr. Quaritch the book-seller, of Piccadilly, that ” Sir John’s working man is an ideal

creation.” ” I,” he adds, “have known many working men, but none of them could have digested such a feast as he has prepared for them.” This opinion is corroborated by information sup-plied by the librarian of the Free Library of Darlington. His list of the books which are the favourites of the members, who are mainly of the working class, includes only nine of those given by Sir John Lubbock.

Of Sir John’s list we agree with the DUKE of ARGYLL, who writes: ” Sir John Lubbock’s list seems to me very good as far as such lists can possibly go.” To this opinion the MASTER OF BALLIOL assents; adding—to which we also assent : “The chief fault being that it is too long.” Mr. FROUDE remarks: “People must choose their own reading, and Sir John Lubbock’s list will do for a guide as well as others. I, at any rate, do not wish to put myself into competition with him.” With commendable caution, PROFESSOR FREEMAN writes : ” I feel myself quite unable to draw up such a list as you propose, as I could not trust my own judgment on any matter not bearing on my own special studies, and I should be doubtless tempted to give too great prominence to them.

It is with full assent and consent that we subscribe to the remark of Professor J. S. Blackie :

No man, it appears to me, can tell another what he ought to read. A man’s reading, to be of any value must depend on his power of assimilation, and that again depends on his tendencies, his capacities, his surroundings, and his opportunities.

And again :

In attempting to frame such a list as that put forth by Sir John Lubbock, it is also of the utmost importance to keep in view what sort of persons we are favouring with our advice ; and here I see two large classes of readers—those who have large leisure, and have gone through a regular process of severe intellectual discipline ; and those who can only redeem a few hours daily, if so much, to fill up the gaps left in the hasty architecture of their early attempt at self-culture.

And again :

To a political student, on the highest platform of course, Aristotle and Thucydides are supreme authorities; but it would be unreasonable to expect that the mass of intelligent young men in our great cities, untrained in intellectual gymnastics and unfurnished with scholarly aids, should set themselves systematically to grapple with severe thinkers of this type, or with metaphysics or metaphysical theology.

Mr. Carlyle has somewhere said that ” books are, like men’s
souls, divided into sheep and goats;” and probably there is no better advice on the choice of books than that which, in his pithy manner, he gave to the students of Edinburgh University : “Learn to be good readers, which is perhaps a more difficult thing than you imagine. Learn to be discriminative in your reading—to read all kinds of things that you have an interest in, and that you find to be really fit for what you are engaged on.”* Of this opinion was Dr. Johnson—” A. man,” he says, ” ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good.” “You see,” says Professor Max Muller, “the best books are not the best books for everybody.”

Sir John Lubbock is surprised at the great divergence of opinion as to the best books which has been expressed. ” Nine of your correspondents,” he writes to the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, “have favoured us with lists of some length. These lists contain some 300 works not mentioned by me (without, however, any corresponding omissions), and yet there is not one single book which occurs in every list, or even in half of them, and only about half a dozen which appear in more than one of the nine.”

We will now glance at some of the criticisms of Sir John’s “best hundred.” The PRINCE OF WALES, speaking with diffidence, expresses the opinion that the list suggested by Sir John Lubbock could hardly be improved upon. His Royal Highness would, however, venture to remark that the works of Dryden should not be omitted from such an important and comprehensive list.”Mr. CHAMBERLAIN does not think he could greatly improve Sir John’s list, but would inquire ” whether it is by accident or design that the Bible has been omitted?”It will be observed that in Sir John’s revised list the Bible stands at the head. The political reputation and official position of Mr. Bryce, M.P., have made people forget that he first made his reputation by his book on “The Holy Roman Empire,” and that he is still an Oxford Professor and a Fellow of Oriel.

“I give you [he writes to the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette] some additions to and criticisms on Sir John Lubbock’s list, which occur to me. I have not seen the remarks of your other correspondents, except Mr. Ruskin’s. In Greek poetry Pindar ought to be substituted for Hesiod. In Greek philosophy, Aristotle’s ” Rhetoric” and “Poetic” ought not to be omitted. Of Cicero it would be much better to have some Orations than the ” Offices” or “Old Age.” St. Augustine’s

“De Civitate Dei ” is indispensable. Perhaps no book ever more affected history. The Icelandic Sagas, or some of them, ought to be added. Most of the best have been translated, such as ” Njals Saga,” ” Grettis Saga,” and the ” Heimscringla.” The poems in the “Elder Edda” (now admirably translated in Vigfusson and Powell’s ” Corpus Poeticum Boreale “) ought also to find a place. For travels, add Marco Polo; for history, Machiavelli’s “Prince.” In Italian poetry, Ariosto and Leopard should come in. The ” Lusiad” of Camoens is one of the finest examples of a poem in the grand style, and not the less interesting because the only work of Portuguese genius whose fame has overpassed the limits of its country. Montesquieu’s “Esprit des Lois” is indispensable ; so is ” Candide.” In modern fiction ” Lee Miserables ” and ” The Scarlet Letter ” may well replace Kingsley and Bulwer. The modern poets Keats and Shelley surely rank above Southey and Longfellow. Whether you put anything in its place or not (for example, Kant’s ” Kritik der reinen Vernunft ” or Hegel’s ” History of Philosophy “), Lewis’s ” History of Philosophy ” should be struck out.*

 

Lord COLERIDGE, premising that since he left the university his reading has only been desultory and superficial, continues :

Generally speaking, I think Sir John Lubbock’s list a very good one, as far as I know the books which compose it. But I know nothing of Chinese or Sanscrit, and have no opinion whatever about the Chinese and Sanscrit works he refers to. To the classics I should add Catullus, Propertius, Ovid (in selections), Pindar, and the pastoral writers Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus.

I should find a place among epic poets for Tasso, Ariosto, and, I should suppose, Camoens, though I know him only in translation. With the poem of Malory on the ” Morte d’Arthur ” I am quite unacquainted : Malory’s prose romance under that title is familiar to many readers from Southey’s reprint of (I think) Caxton’s edition of it.

Among the Greek dramatists, I should give more prominent place to Euripides—the friend of Socrates, the idol of Menander, the admiration of Milton and Charles Fox ; and I should exclude Aristophanes, whose splendid genius does not seem to me to atone for the baseness and vulgarity of his mind. In history, I shall exclude Hume, as mere waste of time now to read ; and include Tacitus and Livy and Lord Clarendon and Sismondi. I do not know enough about philosophy to offer any opinion. In poetry and general literature, I should certainly include Dryden, some plays of Ben Jenson, and Ford and Messinger, and Shirley and Webster ; Gray, Collins, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, De Quincey, Bolingbroke, Sterne ; and I should substitute Bryant for Longfellow ; and most certainly I should add Cowper. In fiction I should add Miss Austen, “Clarissa,” “Tom Jones,” “Humphrey Clinker ;” and certainly exclude Kingsley.

Mr. RUSKIN has ” put his pen lightly through the needless, and blottesquely through the rubbish and poison of Sir John’s

list,” with the result of reducing it by fully one-half. He omits all the non-Christian moralists among the theological books ; he retains only Jeremy Taylor’s “Holy Living and Dying” and “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” From the historical writers he excludes Gibbon, Voltaire, Hume, and Grote ; he erases John Stuart Mill’s name altogether, and every writer on philosophy but Bacon, and of him would read chiefly ” The New Atlantis.” He strikes out Southey and Longfellow from among the poets, and Hume, Macaulay, and Emerson from among the essayists ; but be would read all Plato and every word of Scott and Carlyle. Mr. Ruskin, in a subsequent letter to the editor, says :—” The idea that any well-conducted mortal life could find leisure enough to read one hundred books would have left me wholly silent on the matter, but that I was fain, when you sent me Sir John’s list, to strike out, for my own pupils’ sake, the books I would forbid them to be plagued with.” He adds his reasons for erasing some of the books. These judgments are pre-iminently characteristic of the man’s dogmatic, self-sufficient, supercilious, and, we must add, superficial nature :

1. Grote’s History of Greece.-Because there is probably no commercial establishment between Charing Cross and the Bank whose head•clerk could not write a better one, if he had the vanity to waste his time for it.

2. Confessions of St. Augustine.—Because religious people nearly always think too much about themselves, and there are many saints whom it is much more desirable to know the history of—St. Patrick, to begin with, especially in present times.

3. John Stuart Mill.-Sir John Lubbock ought to have known that his day was over.

4. Charles Kingsley.-Because his sentiment is false, and his tragedy frightful. People who buy cheap clothes are not punished in real life by catching fevers; social inequalities are not to he redressed by tailors falling in love with bishops’ daughters, or gamekeepers with squires ; and the story of “Hypatia” is the most ghastly in Christian tradition, and should for ever have been left in silence.

5. Darwin.—Because it is every man’s duty to know what he is, and not to think of the embryo he was, nor the skeleton that he shall be. Because also Darwin has a mortal fascination for all vainly curious and idly speculative persons, and has collected, in the train of him, every impudent imbecility in Europe, like a dim comet wagging its useless tail of phosphorescent nothing across the steadfast stars.

6. Gibbon.—Primarily none but the malignant and the weak study the Decline and Fall either of State or organism. Dissolution and putrescence are alike common and unclean in all things; any wretch or simpleton may observe for himself; and experience himself, the processes of ruin ; but good men study and wise men describe only the growth and standing of things—not their decay. For the rest, Gibbon’s is the worst English that was ever written by

an educated Englishman. Having no imagination and little logic, he is alike incapable either of picturesqueness or wit; his epithets are malicious without point, sonorous without weight, and have no office but to make a flat sentence turgid.

7. Voltaire.—His work is, in comparison with good literature, what nitric acid is to wine, and sulphuretted hydrogen to air. Literary chemists cannot but take account of the sting and stench of him ; but he has no place in the library of a thoughtful scholar. Every man of sense knows more of the world than Voltaire can tell him; and what he wishes to express of such knowledge he will say without a snarl.•

 

Mr. SWINBURNE would add Mill “On Liberty,” and Mrs. Gaskell’s works.

Mr. WILLIAM MORRIS writes: “I hope I shall escape boycotting at the hands of my countrymen for leaving out Milton; but the union in his works of cold classicalism with Puritanism (the two things which I hate most in this world) repels me so that I cannot, read him.”  [Our readers will remember Dr Johnson’s saying, “Why sir, no one ever read Paradise Lost for pleasure.” ]Mr. Morris adds : ” I should like to say here that I yield to no one, not even Mr. Ruskin, in my love and admiration for Scott ; also that, to my mind, of the novelists of our generation Dickens is immeasurably ahead.”

Lady DILKE after expressing her assent (in which we concur) to the criticisms of the Pall Mall Gazette on the wisdom of placing before “working men, or any men whatever, such a vast and heterogeneous course of study,” adds (and we venture to express our concurrence in the opinion) : “To be in a position to properly understand and appreciate the works on Sir John’s list, I undertake to say that one must have spent at least thirty years in preparatory study, and have had the command of, say, something more than a thousand other volumes.”

Mr. WILKIE COLLINS, after recommending Sterne’s “Sentimental Journey” as the best book of travels “that has ever been written,” and ” Childe Harold ” as ” the greatest poem which the world has seen since ‘Paradise Lost,” continues: My own ideas cordially recognize any system of education the direct tendency of which is to make us better Christians. Looking over Sir John Lubbock’s list from this point of view—that is to say, assuming that the production of a good citizen represents the most valuable result of a liberal education—I submit that the best book which your correspondent has recommended is ” The Vicar of Wake-field,” and of the many excellent schoolmasters (judging them by their works) in whose capacity for useful teaching he believes, the two
in whom I, for my part, most implicitly trust are Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Holding these extraordinary opinions, if you asked me to pick out a biographical work for general reading, I should choose (after Boswell’s supremely great book, of course) Lockhart’s ” Life of Scott.” Let the general reader follow my advice, and he will find himself not only introduced to the greatest genius that has ever written novels, but provided with the example of a man, modest, just, generous, resolute, and merciful—a man whose very faults and failings have been transformed into virtues through the noble atonement that he offered at the peril and the sacrifice of his life.
Mr. COLLINS is also of opinion that “the most perfect letters in the English language ” are those of Byron, published in his Life by Moore, and he recommends a book unknown, we venture to affirm, to nine-tenths of even our middle-aged readers. ” Read, my good public, Mrs. Inchbald’s ‘Simple Story,’ in which you will find the character of a young woman who is made interesting even by her faults—a rare triumph, I can tell you, in our art.”*

At first sight there seems something incongruous in the editor of Punch recommending the study of Cardinal Newman’s works; but Mr. F. C. BURNAND writes: “I should recommend ‘ The Grammar of Assent’ and all Cardinal Newman’s works. His ‘Lectures on Catholicism in England’ are masterpieces.” In this recommendation we thoroughly agree, especially as to “The Grammar of Assent,” one of the most wonderful books the present generation has seen.

The Cardinal was applied to for his opinion on Sir John Lubbock’s list, but feeling at his great age unequal to the task, was obliged to decline it. It would have been interesting to have had the views of such a master of thought and expression.

We gain from another source [a biography] some slight information on the subject. Mr. Jennings, describing the Cardinal’s library, says : The books with which the walls are lined bear evidence that light literature is not disregarded. Miss Austen, Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Sir Walter Scott, Mrs. Gaskell are favourite authors with the great theologian. Of modern English poets, Wordsworth, Southey, and Crabbe are highly valued by him, and constantly read.

Mr. HENRY Irving writes : “Before a hundred books, commend me first to the study of two—the Bible and Shake-speare.”

Mrs. LYNN-LINTON would add to the list ” Pilgrim’s Progress,” Green’s ” History of the English People,” Herbert Spencer (every word), Lecky, and all Darwin ; Carlyle’s full works (no selection), and George Eliot ; Miss Austen, Bate’s and Wallace’s and Livingstone’s travels, Laing’s “Travels in Nor-way,” Kinglnke’s “Eothen ” and ” History of the Crimean War;” and to French literature, Dumas (the elder), G. Sand, and Balzac, if the reader be a man.

Archdeacon FARRAR writes : “If all the books of the world were in a blaze, the first twelve which I should snatch out of the flames would be the Bible, the ‘Imitatio Christi,’ Homer, AEschylus, Thucydides, Tacitis, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth. Of living writers I would save first the works of Tennyson, Browning, and Ruskin.”* We are surprised not to find the Archdeacon’s “Life of Christ” in any of the lists.

The PRESIDENT OF THE CONGREGATIONAL UNION places in his list some books not to be found in any of the others. Amongst these are—Professor Bryce’s ” History of the Holy Roman Empire,” Helps’ “Friends in Council,”” Companions of my Solitude,” and ” Organization of Common Life,” Bossuet’s “Funeral Orations,” Whately’s “Cautions for the Times,” Newman’s “Parochial Sermons,” and Wraxall’s ” Memoirs ;” and he concludes his letter with this advice : “Add to these an occasional course of reading in the Church Times, the Guardian, the Record, the Rock, the Watchman, the Nonconformist, the Inquirer”, and the Freethinker, in order to see how diligently our contemporaries endeavour not to understand but to misrepresent each other ; and by the aid of the books above mentioned I think the unlearned reader will find enough to instruct, amuse, and astonish him, both in England and else-where.


To be honest, there are at least six more pages of this to go, and I begin to find it all very tedious, and I am sure few of you have made it this far.=)  Here are a couple more comments I found interesting or amusing:

Professor Max Muller writes, “If I were to tell you what I really think of the hundred best books, I am afraid you would call me the greatest literary heretic or an utter ignoramus. I know few books, if any, which I should call good from the beginning to the end.  I pray thee, have me excused.

Mr HM Stanley (the African explorer) passes this criticism on Sir John’s list: I observe that science, astronomy, chemistry, geology, geography, natural history, manners and customs of people, are wholly omitted by Sir John Lubbock,  as well as arts, manufactures, industries, biographies, antiquities, &c.  If a man knows nothing of these, he had far better throw every book on Sir John’s list into the waste basket except the Bible. For supposing that he knows all about philosophy and history and the classics, if he has no ideas beyond what he has gathered from these, he is only fit to be a soldier or a mechanical copyist.

…..

After all this discussion about the best books, the case remains as it is stated by Lord Iddesleigh; ” So great is the mass of our book heritage that it is absolutely impossible for any one and
doubly impossible for one who has other engagements in life, to make himself acquainted with the hundredth part of it. So that our choice lies for the most part between ignorance of much that we would greatly like to know and that kind of acquaintance which is to be acquired only by desultory read-ing?'(The Pleasures, the Dangers and the Uses of Desultory Reading by Stafford Henry Northcote Iddesleigh, “This discourse was read by the Earl of Iddesleigh, lord rector of the University of Edinburgh, in the United Presbyterian synod-hall, the first of a series of addresses to the students, on November 3, 1885.”)

But the Lord Rector gave this warning to the Edin-burgh students : ” We are not to confound desultory work with idleness.”t And with the exactness of an Oxford man of the old school he proceeds to define the word “desultory” : It is useful to look to the origin of words. The word desultory is of Latin parentage, and it was applied by the Romans to describe the equestrian jumping actively from one steed to another in the circus, or even, as was the case with Numidians, from one charger to another, in the midst of battle. That certainly was nc•idle loitering. It was energetic activity, calculated to keep the mind and the body very much alive indeed. That should be the spirit of the desultory reader. His must be no mere fingering of books without thought how they are to be turned to account. He may be wise in not allowing himself to become a bookworm, but he must take care not to become what is much worse—a book-butterfly. Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well, and it is possible to so regulate and pursue a seem-ingly desultory course of reading as to render it more truly beneficial than an apparently deeper and severer method of study.: And even in the case of those who give themselves up to strictly limited subjects, Lord Iddesleigh affirms that the inter-mixture of some general and desultory reading is necessary both for the very purposes of their study and in order to relieve the strain of the mind and to keep it in a healthy condition, and he tells us his own experience: I never read so many novels in succession as during the months that I was working for my degree at the rate of ten or twelve hours a day; and in the week when I was actually under examination I read through the ” Arabian Nights” in the evenings. I forget who the great judge was who, being asked as to his reading, answered that he read nothing but law and novels. But there is plenty of literature besides novels and besides the ” Arabian Nights ” which will be good for the relaxa-tion of the mind after severe study, and I venture to think that the more miscellaneous our selection is, the more agreeable as well as more profitable it will be.*

And he refers to the well-known passage in Bacon’s essay ” Of Studies,” which should be borne in mind by those, if any such there shall ever be, who set about to read Sir John Lubbock’s “Hundred”: ” Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested,” that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly and with diligence and attention.

 

Other PNEU references to John Lubbock:

“Books recommended for lessons in house, garden and field:–Lubbock’s “Chapters in Popular Natural History,” …  also, I believe, referred to here.   And referenced here.

The Scenery of Switzerland (new edition), by Sir John Lubbock (Macmillan, 6/-). The time will come when nobody will be content to enjoy scenery without the added pleasure of comprehension. Why this broad valley, that tumultuous mountain heap? It is to this intelligent curiosity on the part of the author that we owe Sir John Lubbock’s volume on The Scenery of Switzerland and the causes to which it is due. “I longed,” he says, “to know what forces had raised the mountains, had hollowed out the lakes and directed the rivers.” We venture to say that a trip to Switzerland would be ten times as enjoyable after a careful study of this able, well-informed and simply written volume.

That must be a dull soul who can read Darwin, or Lubbock, or Huxley, Arabella Buckley, or Doctor Taylor, without any kindling of the enthusiasm of Nature.

This article, which also appears in volume 5

More about Sir John Lubbock and his book list, as well as about Charlotte Mason, here.

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