BOOKS NECESSARY FOR A LIBERAL EDUCATION
BY MR. WILKIE COLLINS.
You have proposed that I should recommend to inexperienced readers some of the books which are necessary for a liberal education; and you have kindly sent a list of works drawn out by Sir John Lubbock with this object in view, and recently published in your journal.
I am sincerely sensible of the compliment to myself which is implied in your suggestion; but I am at the same time afraid that you have addressed yourself to the wrong man. Let me own the truth. I add one more to the number of reckless people who astonish Sir John Lubbock by devoting little care to the selection of what they read. I pick up the literature that happens to fall in my way, and live upon it as well as I can—like the sparrows who are picking up the crumbs outside my window while I write. If I may still quote my experience of myself, let me add that I have never got any good out of a book unless the book interested me in the first instance. When I find that reading becomes an effort instead of a pleasure, I shut up the volume, respecting the eminent author, and admiring my enviable fellow creatures who have succeeded where I have failed. These sentiments have been especially lively in me (to give an example) when I have laid aside in despair "Clarissa Harlowe," "La Nouvelle Héloise," the plays of Ben Jonson, Burke on "The Sublime and Beautiful," Hallam’s "Middle Ages," and Roscoe’s "Life of Leo the Tenth." Is a person with this good reason to blush for himself (if he was only young enough to do it) the right sort of person to produce a list of books for readers in search of a liberal education? You will agree with me that he is capable of seriously recommending Sterne’s "Sentimental Journey" as the best book of travels that has ever been written, and Byron’s "Childe Harold" as the grandest poem which the world has seen since the first publication of "Paradise Lost."
After this confession, if I nevertheless venture to offer a few suggestions, will you trust my honesty, even while you doubt my discretion? In any case, the tomb of literature is close by you. You can give me decent burial in the waste-paper basket.
To begin with, What is a liberal education? If I stood at my house door, and put that question to the first ten intelligent-looking persons who passed by, I believe I should receive ten answers all at variance one with the other. 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 Wakefield"—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.
Let me not forget that the question of literary value must also be considered in recommending books, for this good reason, that positive literary value means positive literary attraction to the general reader. In this connection I have in my mind the most perfect letters in the English language when I introduce the enviable persons who have not yet read it to Moore’s "Life of Byron." Again, if any voices crying in the literary wilderness ask me what travels it may be well to read, I do justice to the charm of an admirable style, presenting the results of true and vivid observation, when I mention the names of Beckford and Kinglake. Get Beckford’s "Italy, Spain, and Portugal;" and, beginning towards the end of the book, whet your appetite by reading the "Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha." In Kinglake’s case, "Eöthen" is the title, and the cheap edition of the book is within everybody’s reach. Dr. Kane (in "Arctic Explorations") and Mr. George Melville (in "The Lena Delta") are neither of them consummate masters of the English language; but they possess the rare and admirable gift of being able to make other people see what they have seen themselves. When you meet with travellers who are unable to do this, you will get nothing out of them but weariness of spirit. Shut up their books.
Keeping clear of living writers, may I recommend one or two works of fiction, on the chance that they may not have been mentioned, with a word of useful comment perhaps, in other lists?
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. Read Marryat’s "Peter Simple," and "Midshipman Easy," and enjoy true humour and masterly knowledge of human nature. Let my dear lost friend, Charles Reade, seize on your interest, and never allow it to drop from beginning to end in "Hard Cash." Let Dumas keep you up all night over "Monte Cristo," and Balzac draw tears that honour him and honour you in "Père Goriot." Last, not least, do justice to a greater writer, shamefully neglected at the present time in England and America alike, who invented the sea-story, and created the immortal character of "Leather Stocking." Read "The Pilot" and "Jack Tier"; read "The Deerslayer" and "The Pathfinder," and I believe you will be almost as grateful to Fenimore Cooper as I am.
It is time to have done. If I attempted to enumerate all the books that I might honestly recommend, I should employ as many secretaries as Napoleon the Great, and I should find nobody bold enough to read me to the end. As it is, some critical persons may object that there runs all through this letter the prejudice that might have been anticipated in a writer of what heavy people call "light literature." No, Sir; my prejudice is in favour of the only useful books that I know of—books in all departments of literature which invite the general reader, as distinguished from books that repel him. If it is answered that profitable reading is a matter of duty first and a matter of pleasure afterwards, let me shelter myself under the authority of Dr. Johnson. Never mind what I say—hear him (Boswell, vol, ii., page 213, ed. 1859):— "I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good."
I first read those admirable words (in an earlier edition of Boswell) when I was a boy at school. What a consolation they were to me when I could not learn my lesson! What consolation they may still offer to bigger boys in the same predicament, among books recommended to them by the highest authorities!
From Pall Mall Gazette 11 February 1886, p2
go back to e-text list