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JAMES ATKINSON, Esq.,
OF THE HONOurable easT-INDIA COMPANY'S BENGAL MEDICAL SERVICE
.REV. J. A. ATKINSON, M.A.,
RECTOR OF LONGSIGHT; HON. CANON OF MANCHESTER.
GEORGE ROUTLEDGE AND SONS, LIMITED
GLASGOW, MANCHESTER, AND NEW YORK
THE RIGHT HON. SIR JOHN LUBBOCK, BART., M.P., F.R.S., D.C.L., LL.D.
IN the year 1886 I gave an address on "Books and Reading" at the Working Men's College, which in the following year was printed as one of the chapters in my "Pleasures of Life."
In it I mentioned about one hundred names, and the list has been frequently referred to since as my list of "the hundred best books." That, however, is not quite a correct statement. If I were really to make a list of what are in my judgment the hundred greatest books, it would contain several-Newton's "Principia," for instance-which I did not include, and it would exclude several -the "Koran," for instance-which I inserted in deference to the judgment of others. Again, I excluded living authors, from some of whom-Ruskin and Tennyson, Huxley and Tyndall, for instance, to mention no others-I have myself derived the keenest enjoyment; and especially I expressly stated that I did not select the books on my own authority, but as being those most frequently mentioned with approval by those writers who have referred directly or indirectly to the pleasure of reading, rather than as suggestions of my own.
I have no doubt that on reading the list, many names of books which might well be added would occur to almost any one. Indeed, various criticisms on the list have appeared, and many books have been mentioned which it is said ought to have been included. On the other hand no corresponding omissions have been suggested. I have referred to several of the criticisms, and find that, while 300 or 400 names have been proposed for addition, only half a dozen are suggested for omission. Moreover, it is remarkable that not one of the additional books suggested appears in all the lists, or even in half of them, and only about half a dozen in more than one.
But while, perhaps, no two persons would entirely concur as to all the books to be included in such a list, I believe no one would deny that those suggested are not only good, but among the best.
I am, however, ready, and indeed glad, to consider any suggestions, and very willing to make any changes which can be shown to be improvements. I have indeed made two changes in the list as it originally appeared, having inserted Kalidasa's "Sakoontala,
or The Ring," and Schiller's "William Tell"; omitting Lucretius, which is perhaps rather too difficult, and Miss Austen, as English novelists were somewhat over-represented.
Another objection made has been that the books mentioned are known to every one, at any rate by name; that they are as household words. Every one, it has been said, knows about Herodotus and Homer, Shakespeare and Milton. There is, no doubt, some truth in this. But even Lord Iddesleigh, as Mr. Lang has pointed out in his “Life,” had never read Marcus Aurelius, and I may add that he afterwards thanked me warmly for having suggested the "Meditations "" to him. If, then, even Lord Iddesleigh, "probably one of the last of English statesmen who knew the literature of Greece and Rome widely and well," had not read Marcus Aurelius, we may well suppose that others also may be in the same position. It is also a curious commentary on what was no doubt an unusually wide knowledge of classical literature that Mr. Lang should ascribe-and probably quite correctly-Lord Iddesleigh's never having had his attention called to one of the most beautiful and improving books in classical, or indeed in any other literature, to the fact that the emperor wrote in "crabbed and corrupt Greek."
Again, a popular writer in a recent work has observed that "why any one should select the best hundred, more than the best eleven, or the best thirty books, it is hard to conjecture." But this remark entirely misses the point. Eleven books, or even thirty, would be very few; but no doubt I might just as well have given 90, or 110. Indeed, if our arithmetical notation had been duodecimal instead of decimal, I should no doubt have made up the number to 120. I only chose 100 as being a round number.
Another objection has been that every one should be left to choose for himself. And so he must. No list can be more than a suggestion. But a great literary authority can hardly perhaps realize the difficulty of selection. An ordinary person turned into a library and sarcastically told to choose for himself, has to do so almost at haphazard. He may perhaps light upon a book with an attractive title, and after wasting on it much valuable time and patience, find that, instead of either pleasure or profit, he has weakened, or perhaps lost, his love of reading.
Messrs. George Routledge and Sons have conceived the idea of publishing the books contained in my list in a handy and cheap form, selecting themselves the editions which they prefer; and believe that in doing so they will confer a benefit on many who have not funds or space to collect a large library.
30 March, 1891.
* I have since had many other letters to the same effect.