“Everybody calls for hints what to read, and what to look out for in reading. Like all the rest of us, I have often been asked for a list of the hundred best books, and the other day a gentleman wrote to me to give him by return of post that far more difficult thing—a list of the three best books in the world.”
The other day, a reader who identified himself as “a middle-aged white male” (as though that information were pertinent) asked if I could give him a list of essential books, “the ones everybody should read,” no number specified. By coincidence, Andrew Ryckard of Graveyard Masonry had posted on Monday a passage from John Morley’s essay “Aphorisms,” collected in Studies in Literature (1901). I had never read anything by Morley and found the excerpt from the essay interesting, so I borrowed a copy of the volume from my library. Morley’s approach is late-Victorian, high-minded by contemporary standards, but common-sensical and grounded in tradition. After the passage above he writes:
“Both the hundred and the three are a task far too high for me; but perhaps you will let me try to indicate what, among so much else, is one of the things best worth hunting for in books, and one of the quarters of the library where you may get on the scent. Though tranquil, it will be my fault if you find the hour dull, for this particular literary chapter concerns life, manners, society, conduct, human nature, our aims, our ideals, and all besides that is most animated and most interesting in man's busy chase after happiness and wisdom.”
The notion that one reads to acquire “happiness and wisdom” will strike most readers as quaint and impossibly old-fashioned, though I’ve always harbored the hope that everything I have ever read, good or bad, has contributed something to who I am and what I know. Even from lousy books we learn what to avoid and how to distinguish it from the excellent or merely good. I resist the notion of a mandatory canon, but even the dimmest reader can tell the difference between George Eliot and Joyce Carol Oates, or Robert Burton and Robert Bly. And if you’re a writer, you will naturally wish to read the best and learn from their examples. The poet Norm Sibum tells me he has finished reading the three fat volumes of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative (1958, 1963, 1974), a work I had suggested to him. He said he “enjoyed” it, as I have, and that is reward enough. Norm may never again think about the Civil War, or he may write an epic poem on the subject.
The title of Morley’s essay may be misleading. He writes not of the pithy formulations themselves but of the fact that many of the best writers write aphoristically. By implication he suggests that “happiness and wisdom” are best articulated not ponderously or at great length but with the stinging terseness of an aphorism. Morley never gets around to drawing up the list of books his reader requests, but off-handedly supplies likely candidates – Plutarch, Seneca, Horace, Montaigne, Balthasar Gracian, Bacon, La Rochefoucauld, Johnson, Boswell, Chamfort, Schopenhauer, Lichtenberg. No surprises there, but wisdom is rare and thus readily identified.
Morley praises “. . . the great stern, mournful men, like Tacitus, Dante, Pascal, who, standing as far aloof from the soft poetic dejection of some of the moods of Shelley or Keats, as from the savage fury of Swift, watch with a prophet’s indignation the heedless waste of faculty and opportunity, the triumph of paltry motive and paltry aim, as if we were the flies of a summer noon, which do more than any active malignity to distort the great lines, and to weaken or to frustrate the strong and healthy parts, of human nature.”
A good reader takes suggestions, however unlikely their source, follows the trail inevitably leading from one book to the next, rereads passionately and takes lots of notes.