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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900)

By Preface to the First Edition

THE PLAN of this Work is simple, and yet it is novel. In its distinctive features it differs from any compilation that has yet been made. Its main purpose is to present to American households a mass of good reading. But it goes much beyond this. For in selecting this reading it draws upon all literatures of all time and of every race, and thus becomes a conspectus of the thought and intellectual evolution of man from the beginning. Another and scarcely less important purpose is the interpretation of this literature in essays by scholars and authors competent to speak with authority.

The title, “A Library of the World’s Best Literature,” is strictly descriptive. It means that what is offered to the reader is taken from the best authors, and is fairly representative of the best literature and of all literatures. It may be important historically, or because at one time it expressed the thought and feeling of a nation, or because it has the character of universality, or because the readers of to-day will find it instructive, entertaining, or amusing. The Work aims to suit a great variety of tastes, and thus to commend itself as a household companion for any mood and any hour. There is no intention of presenting merely a mass of historical material, however important it is in its place, which is commonly of the sort that people recommend others to read and do not read themselves. It is not a library of reference only, but a library to be read. The selections do not represent the partialities and prejudices and cultivation of any one person, or of a group of editors even; but, under the necessary editorial supervision, the sober judgment of almost as many minds as have assisted in the preparation of these volumes. By this method, breadth of appreciation has been sought.

The arrangement is not chronological, but alphabetical, under the names of the authors, and, in some cases, of literatures and special subjects. Thus, in each volume a certain variety is secured, the heaviness or sameness of a mass of antique, classical, or mediæval material is avoided, and the reader obtains a sense of the varieties and contrasts of different periods. But the work is not an encyclopædia, or merely a dictionary of authors. Comprehensive information as to all writers of importance may be included in a supplementary reference volume; but the attempt to quote from all would destroy the Work for reading purposes, and reduce it to a herbarium of specimens.

In order to present a view of the entire literary field, and to make these volumes especially useful to persons who have not access to large libraries, as well as to treat certain literatures or subjects when the names of writers are unknown or would have no significance to the reader, it has been found necessary to make groups of certain nationalities, periods, and special topics. For instance, if the reader would like to know something of ancient and remote literatures which cannot well be treated under the alphabetical list of authors, he will find special essays by competent scholars on the Accadian-Babylonian literature, on the Egyptian, the Hindu, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Icelandic, the Celtic, and others, followed by selections many of which have been specially translated for this Work. In these literatures names of ascertained authors are given in the Index. The intention of the essays is to acquaint the reader with the spirit, purpose, and tendency of these writings, in order that he may have a comparative view of the continuity of thought and the value of tradition in the world. Some subjects, like the Arthurian Legends, the Nibelungen Lied, the Holy Grail, Provençal Poetry, the Chansons and Romances, and the Gesta Romanorum, receive a similar treatment. Single poems upon which the authors’ title to fame mainly rests, familiar and dear hymns, and occasional and modern verse of value, are also grouped together under an appropriate heading, with reference in the Index whenever the poet is known.

It will thus be evident to the reader that the Library is fairly comprehensive and representative, and that it has an educational value, while offering constant and varied entertainment. This comprehensive feature, which gives the Work distinction, is, however, supplemented by another of scarcely less importance; namely, the critical interpretive and biographical comments upon the authors and their writings and their place in literature, not by one mind, or by a small editorial staff, but by a great number of writers and scholars, specialists and literary critics, who are able to speak from knowledge and with authority. Thus the Library becomes in a way representative of the scholarship and wide judgment of our own time. But the essays have another value. They give information for the guidance of the reader. If he becomes interested in any selections here given, and would like a fuller knowledge of the author’s works, he can turn to the essay and find brief observations and characterizations which will assist him in making his choice of books from a library.

The selections are made for household and general reading; in the belief that the best literature contains enough that is pure and elevating and at the same time readable, to satisfy any taste that should be encouraged. Of course selection implies choice and exclusion. It is hoped that what is given will be generally approved; yet it may well happen that some readers will miss the names of authors whom they desire to read. But this Work, like every other, has its necessary limits; and in a general compilation the classic writings, and those productions that the world has set its seal on as among the best, must predominate over contemporary literature that is still on its trial. It should be said, however, that many writers of present note and popularity are omitted simply for lack of space. The editors are compelled to keep constantly in view the wider field. The general purpose is to give only literature; and where authors are cited who are generally known as philosophers, theologians, publicists, or scientists, it is because they have distinct literary quality, or because their influence upon literature itself has been so profound that the progress of the race could not be accounted for without them.

These volumes contain not only or mainly the literature of the past, but they aim to give, within the limits imposed by such a view, an idea of contemporary achievement and tendencies in all civilized countries. In this view of the modern world the literary product of America and Great Britain occupies the largest space.

It should be said that the plan of this Work could not have been carried out without the assistance of specialists in many departments of learning, and of writers of skill and insight, both in this country and in Europe. This assistance has been most cordially given, with a full recognition of the value of the enterprise and of the aid that the Library may give in encouraging and broadening literary tastes. Perhaps no better service could be rendered the American public at this period than the offer of an opportunity for a comprehensive study of the older and the greater literatures of other nations. By this comparison it can gain a just view of its own literature, and of its possible mission in the world of letters.