“There are certain books, differing widely the one from the other, that are almost universally beloved and before which criticism suspends itself. They are innocent without being contemptible; virtuous without being of an insupportable puritan-hypocrisy; admirably conceived without formal perfection. And, without being amongst the great masterpieces, they are necessary to a world that would be poorer without them.”
I’m fairly certain no book is “universally beloved.” In fact, some of the books that once approached that description – The Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Huckleberry Finn – are widely if not universally detested, or at least ignored, but that’s rooted in mere fashion, not love or critical rigor. What Ford Madox Ford is getting at in The March of Literature (1938) is the category of books fixed by every serious reader one notch below the Homer-Dante-Shakespeare axis. It’s a private and autonomous realm, though it overlaps with the equally private realms of other readers. The first book with a home in this reader’s bookish sanctuary is Kipling’s Kim. I’ve read it every few years for the last half-century in the spirit Randall Jarrell said he read it: “at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love.” That’s the point: selfish, undefendable, non-canon-minded pleasure.
What else? Robinson Crusoe. O. Henry’s stories. Rasselas. The Man Who Loved Children, much loved by Jarrell. The Man Who Was Thursday. As for nonfiction, Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion. A.J. Liebling, especially Between Meals. Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Beerbohm’s essays. Santayana’s The Realms of Being. All are books, once read, made for rereading. No two such lists will be identical. Ford’s has nothing in common with mine – Hardy’s stories, The Scarlet Letter (a book I enthusiastically detest), Paul et Virginie, Manon Lescaut, some Trollope and more. He writes:
“Such a list is the moss that we rolling stones gather as we pass through life. It will be thicker in our youths; indeed our lives will be rich according as it was thick or thin then, for to have the young mind plentifully stored with books of that type is to be sheltered from many of the griefs of age. From the masterpieces one gains strength, assurance, composure. From these others one is enriched by the memories of the days when one first read them. One renews, with those remembrances, one’s youth.”
This leads Ford to Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), a novel I have never read that moves Ford to remember “halcyon days he passed when the world was better.” That’s how I remember the first time I read Proust.