The Pleasures of Life
By Sir John Lubbock

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    “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.

In old days books were rare and dear. Now on the contrary, it may be said with greater truth than ever that

  “Words are things, and a small drop of ink,
  Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
  That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”

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.”

There are, indeed, books and books, and there are books which, as Lamb said, are not books at all. It is wonderful 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.

Many, I believe, are deterred from attempting what are called stiff books for fear they should not understand them; but 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 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 that 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.

“If,” says Sir John Herschel, “I were to pray for a taste which should stand me in stead under every 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, and 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.”

It is one thing to own a library; it is quite another to use it wisely. 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 had 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 list will wish to suggest other books, as indeed I should myself, but in that case the number would soon run up. [1]

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 I 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, while hoping for criticism; indeed one object which I have 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 any such selection much weight should, I think, be attached to 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 can not 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, 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 to us they seem scarcely to deserve their reputation. It is true that to many, 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; it has, moreover, been admirably translated. With Epictetus, [2] I think must come Marcus Aurelius. The Analects of Confucius will, I believe, prove disappointing 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 views 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 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 opinion that St. Augustine “wrote nothing to the purpose concerning faith.” But then Luther was no great admirer of the Father. 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 solidite.”

Among other devotional works most frequently recommended are Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Pascal’s Pensees, Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and last, not least, Keble’s beautiful Christian Year.

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 Phaedo, the Apology, and the Republic, will be of course read by all who wish 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 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, carried on under more favorable conditions. We must not be ungrateful to the great master, because his 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. Of the Apology and the Phaedo especially it would be impossible to speak too gratefully.

I would also mention Demosthenes’ De Corona, which Lord Brougham pronounced the greatest oration of the greatest of orators; Lucretius, Plutarch’s Lives, Horace, and at least 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 Homer 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 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 I include Aeschylus, 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 “unrivalled majesty” of the Agamemnon, and Mark Pattison considered it “the grandest work of creative genius in the whole range of literature”); or, as Sir M. E. Grant Duff recommends, the Persae; Sophocles (Oedipus Tyrannus), Euripides (Medea), and Aristophanes (The Knights and Clouds); unfortunately, as Schlegel says, probably even the greatest scholar does not understand half his jokes; and I think most modern readers will prefer our modern poets.

I should like, 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 first two volumes of his History of India); the Shah-nameh, the work of the great Persian poet Firdusi; Kalidasa’s Sakuntala, 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, Xenophon (the Anabasis), Thucydides, and Tacitus (Germania); and of modern historians, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall ("the splendid bridge from the old world to the new”), 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 do not now sufficiently 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, Comus and minor poems), Chaucer, Dante, Spencer, Dryden, Scott, Wordsworth, Pope, 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, Carlyle’s Past and Present, Smiles’ Self-Help, and Goethe’s Faust and Autobiography.

Nor can one go wrong in recommending Berkeley’s Human Knowledge, Descartes’ Discours sur la Methode, Locke’s Conduct of the Understanding, Lewes’ History of Philosophy; while, in order to keep within the number one hundred, I can only mention Moliere 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 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!

List of 100 Books.

Works by Living Authors are omitted.

  1. The Bible
  2. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
  3. Epictetus
  4. Aristotle’s Ethics
  5. Analects of Confucius
  6. St. Hilaire’s “Le Bouddha et sa religion”
  7. Wake’s Apostolic Fathers
  8. Thos. a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ
  9. Confessions of St. Augustine (Dr. Pusey)
  10. The Koran (portions of)
  11. Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
  12. Comte’s Catechism of Positive Philosophy
  13. Pascal’s Pensees
  14. Butler’s Analogy of Religion
  15. Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying
  16. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
  17. Keble’s Christian Year
  18. Plato’s Dialogues; at any rate, the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo
  19. Xenophon’s Memorabilia
  20. Aristotle’s Politics
  21. Demosthenes’ De Corona.
  22. Cicero’s De Officiis, De Amicitia, and De Senectute
  23. Plutarch’s Lives
  24. Berkeley’s Human Knowledge
  25. Descartes’ Discours sur la Methode
  26. Locke’s On the Conduct of the Understanding
  27. Homer
  28. Hesiod
  29. Virgil
  30. Maha Bharata |Epitomized in Talboys Wheeler’s
  31. Ramayana |History of India, vols. i. and ii.
  32. The Shahnameh
  33. The Nibelungenlied
  34. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur
  35. The Sheking
  36. Kalidasa’s Sakuntala or The Lost Ring
  37. Aeschylus’ Prometheus
  38. Trilogy of Orestes
  39. Sophocles’ OEdipus
  40. Euripides’ Medea
  41. Aristophanes’ The Knights and Clouds
  42. Horace
  43. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (perhaps in Morris’ edition; or, if expurgated, in C. Clarke’s, or Mrs. Haweis’)
  44. Shakespeare
  45. Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lycidas, Comus, and the shorter poems
  46. Dante’s Divina Commedia
  47. Spenser’s Fairie Queen
  48. Dryden’s Poems
  49. Scott’s Poems
  50. Wordsworth (Mr. Arnold’s selection)
  51. Pope’s Essay on Criticism
  52. Essay on Man
  53. Rape of the Lock
  54. Burns
  55. Byron’s Childe Harold
  56. Gray
  57. Herodotus
  58. Xenophon’s Anabasis and Memorabilia
  59. Thucydides
  60. Tacitus’ Germania
  61. Livy
  62. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
  63. Hume’s History of England
  64. Grote’s History of Greece
  65. Carlyle’s French Revolution
  66. Green’s Short History of England
  67. Lewes’ History of Philosophy
  68. Arabian Nights
  69. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
  70. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
  71. Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield
  72. Cervantes’ Don Quixote
  73. Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  74. Moliere
  75. Schiller’s William Tell
  76. Sheridan’s The Critic, School for Scandal, and The Rivals
  77. Carlyle’s Past and Present
  78. Bacon’s Novum Organum
  79. Smith’s Wealth of Nations (part of)
  80. Mill’s Political Economy
  81. Cook’s Voyages
  82. Humboldt’s Travels
  83. White’s Natural History of Selborne
  84. Darwin’s Origin of Species
  85. Naturalist’s Voyage
  86. Mill’s Logic
  87. Bacon’s Essays
  88. Montaigne’s Essays
  89. Hume’s Essays
  90. Macaulay’s Essays
  91. Addison’s Essays
  92. Emerson’s Essays
  93. Burke’s Select Works
  94. Smiles’ Self-Help
  95. Voltaire’s Zadig and Micromegas
  96. Goethe’s Faust, and Autobiography
  97. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair
  98. Pendennis
  99. Dickens’ Pickwick
  100. David Copperfield
  101. Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii
  102. George Eliot’s Adam Bede
  103. Kingsley’s Westward Ho!
  104. Scott’s Novels

[1] Several longer lists have been given; for instance, by Comte, Catechism, of Positive Philosophy; Pycroft, Course of English Reading; Baldwin, The Book Lover; Perkins, The Best Reading; and by Mr. Ireland, Books for General Readers.

[2] It is much to be desired that some one would publish a selection from the works of Seneca.



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