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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Reading. 1920.

XI. Of Selection

Wednesday, October 23, 1918


LET us hark back, Gentlemen, to our original problem, and consider if our dilatory way have led us to some glimpse of a practical solution.

We may re-state it thus: Assuming it to be true, as men of Science assure us, that the weight of this planet remains constant, and is to-day what it was when mankind carelessly laid it on the shoulders of Atlas; that nothing abides but it goes, that nothing goes but in some form or other it comes back; you and I may well indulge a wonder what reflections upon this astonishing fact our University Librarian, Mr Jenkinson, takes to bed with him. A copy of every book printed in the United Kingdom is—or I had better say, should be—deposited with him. Putting aside the question of what he has done to deserve it, he must surely wonder at times from what other corners of the earth Providence has been at pains to collect and compact the ingredients of the latest new volume he handles for a moment before fondly committing it to the cellars.

  • ‘Locked up, not lost.’
  • Or, to take it in reverse—When the great library of Alexandria went up in flames, doubtless its ashes awoke an appreciable and almost immediate energy in the crops of the Nile Delta. The more leisurable process of desiccation, by which, under modern storage, the components of a modern novel are released to fresh unions and activities admits, as Sir Thomas Browne would say, a wide solution, and was just the question to tease that good man. Can we not hear him discussing it? ‘To be but pyramidally extant is a fallacy in duration … To burn the bones of the King of Edom for lime seems no irrational ferity: but to store the back volumes of Mr Bottomley’s John Bull a passionate prodigality.’


    Well, whatever the perplexities of our Library we may be sure they will never break down that tradition of service, help and courtesy which is, among its fine treasures, still the first. But we have seen that Mr Jenkinson’s perplexities are really but a parable of ours: that the question, What are we to do with all these books accumulating in the world? really is a question: that their mere accumulation really does heap up against us a barrier of such enormous and brute mass that the stream of human culture must needs be choked and spread into marsh unless we contrive to pipe it through. That a great deal of it is meant to help—that even the most of it is well intentioned—avails not against the mere physical obstacle of its mass. If you consider an Athenian gentleman of the 4th century B.C. connecting (as I always preach here) his literature with his life, two things are bound to strike you: the first that he was a man of leisure, somewhat disdainful of trade and relieved of menial work by a number of slaves; the second, that he was surprisingly unencumbered with books. You will find in Plato much about reciters, actors, poets, rhetoricians, pleaders, sophists, public orators and refiners of language, but very little indeed about books. Even the library of Alexandria grew in a time of decadence and belonged to an age not his. Says Jowett in the end:
  • ‘He who approaches him in the most reverent spirit shall reap most of the fruit of his wisdom; he who reads him by the light of ancient commentators will have the least understanding of him.
  • We see him [Jowett goes on] with the eye of the mind in the groves of the Academy, or on the banks of the Ilissus, or in the streets of Athens, alone or walking with Socrates, full of those thoughts which have since become the common possession of mankind. Or we may compare him to a statue hid away in some temple of Zeus or Apollo, no longer existing on earth, a statue which has a look as of the God himself. Or we may once more imagine him following in another state of being the great company of heaven which he beheld of old in a vision. So,’ partly trifling but with a certain degree of seriousness, ‘we linger around the memory of a world which has passed away.’
  • Yes, ‘which has passed away,’ and perhaps with no token more evident of its decease that the sepulture of books that admiring generations have heaped on it!


    In a previous lecture I referred you to the beautiful opening and the yet more beautiful close of the Phaedrus. Let us turn back and refresh ourselves with that Dialogue while we learn from it, in somewhat more of detail, just what a book meant to an Athenian: how fresh a thing it was to him and how little irksome.

    Phaedrus has spent his forenoon listening to a discourse by the celebrated rhetorician Lysias on the subject of Love, and is starting to cool his head with a stroll beyond the walls of the city, when he encounters Socrates, who will not let him go until he has delivered up the speech with which Lysias regaled him, or, better still, the manuscript, ‘which I suspect you are carrying there in your left hand under your cloak.’ So they bend their way beside Ilissus towards a tall plane tree, seen in the distance. Having reached it, they recline.

  • ‘By Hera,’ says Socrates, ‘a fair resting-place, full of summer sounds and scents! This clearing, with the agnus castus in high bloom and fragrant, and the stream beneath the tree so gratefully cool to our feet! Judging from the ornaments and statues, I think this spot must be sacred to Acheloüs and the Nymphs. And the breeze, how deliciously charged with balm! and all summer’s murmur in the air, shrilled by the chorus of the grasshoppers! But the greatest charm is this knoll of turf,—positively a pillow for the head. My dear Phaedrus, you have been a delectable guide.’
  • ‘What an incomprehensible being you are, Socrates,’ returns Phaedrus. ‘When you are in the country, as you say, you really are like some stranger led about by a guide. Upon my word, I doubt if you ever stray beyond the gates save by accident.’
  • ‘Very true, my friend: and I hope you will forgive me for the reason—which is, that I love knowledge, and my teachers are the men who dwell in the city, not the trees or country scenes. Yet I do believe you have found a spell to draw me forth, like a hungry cow before whom a bough or a bunch of fruit is waved. For only hold up before me in like manner a book, and you may lead me all round Attica and over the wide world.’
  • So they recline and talk, looking aloft through that famous pure sky of Attica, mile upon mile transparent; and their discourse (preserved to us) is of Love, and seems to belong to that atmosphere, so clear it is and luminously profound. It ends with the cool of the day, and the two friends arise to depart. Socrates looks about him.

    ‘Should we not before going, offer up a prayer to these local deities?’

    ‘By all means,’ Phaedrus agrees.

  • Socrates (praying): ‘Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, grant me beauty in the inward soul, and that the outward and inward may be at one! May I esteem the wise to be the rich; and may I myself have that quantity of gold which a temperate man, and he only, can carry.… Anything more? That prayer, I think, is enough for me.’
  • Phaedrus. ‘Ask the same for me, Socrates. Friends, methinks, should have all things in common.’
  • Socrates. ‘So be it.… Let us go.’
  • Here we have, as it seems to me, a marriage, without impediment, of wisdom and beauty between two minds that perforce have small acquaintance with books: and yet, with it, Socrates’ confession that anyone with a book under his cloak could lead him anywhere by the nose. So we see that Hellenic culture at its best was independent of book-learning, and yet craved for it.


    When our own Literature awoke, taking its origin from the proud scholarship of the Renaissance, an Englishman who affected it was scarcely more cumbered with books than our Athenian had been, two thousand years before. It was, and it remained, aristocratic: sparingly expensive of its culture. It postulated, if not a slave population, at least a proletariat for which its blessings were not. No one thought of making a fortune by disseminating his work in print. Shakespeare never found it worth while to collect and publish his plays; and a very small sense of history will suffice to check our tears over the price received by Milton for Paradise Lost. We may wonder, indeed, at the time it took our forefathers to realise—or, at any rate, to employ—the energy that lay in the printing-press. For centuries after its invention mere copying commanded far higher prices than authorship. Writers gave ‘authorised’ editions to the world sometimes for the sake of fame, often to justify themselves against piratical publishers, seldom in expectation of monetary profit. Listen, for example, to Sir Thomas Browne’s excuse for publishing Religio Medici (1643):
  • Had not almost every man suffered by the press or were not the tyranny thereof become universal, I had not wanted reason for complaint: but in times wherein I have lived to behold the highest perversion of that excellent invention, the name of his Majesty defamed, the honour of Parliament depraved, the writings of both depravedly, anticipatively, counterfeitly imprinted; complaints may seem ridiculous in private persons; and men of my condition may be as incapable of affronts, as hopeless of their reparations. And truly had not the duty I owe unto the importunity of friends, and the allegiance I must ever acknowledge unto truth, prevailed with me; the inactivity of my disposition might have made these sufferings continual, and time that brings other things to light, should have satisfied me in the remedy of its oblivion. But because things evidently false are not only printed, but many things of truth most falsely set forth, in this latter I could not but think myself engaged. For though we have no power to redress the former, yet in the other, the reparation being within our selves, I have at present represented unto the world a full and intended copy of that piece, which was most imperfectly and surreptitiously published before.
  • This I confess, about seven years past, with some others of affinity thereto, for my private exercise and satisfaction, I had at leisurable hours composed; which being communicated unto one, it became common unto many, and was by transcription successively corrupted, untill it arrived in a most depraved copy at the press.…
  • V

    The men of the 18th century maintained the old tradition of literary exclusiveness, but in a somewhat different way and more consciously.

    I find, Gentlemen, when you read with me in private, that nine out of ten of you dislike the 18th century and all its literary works. As for the Women students, they one and all abominate it. You do not, I regret to say, provide me with reasons much more philosophical than the epigrammatist’s for disliking Doctor Fell. May one whose time of life excuses perhaps a detachment from passion attempt to provide you with one? If so, first listen to this from Mr and Mrs Hammond’s book The Village Labourer, 1760–1832:

  • A row of 18th century houses, or a room of normal 18th century furniture, or a characteristic piece of 18th century literature, conveys at once a sensation of satisfaction and completeness. The secret of this charm is not to be found in any special beauty or nobility of design or expression, but simply in an exquisite fitness. The 18th century mind was a unity, an order. All literature and art that really belong to the 18th century are the language of a little society of men and women who moved within one set of ideas; who understood each other; who were not tormented by any anxious or bewildering problems; who lived in comfort, and, above all things, in composure. The classics were their freemasonry. There was a standard for the mind, for the emotions, for taste: there were no incongruities.
  • When you have a society like this, you have what we roughly call a civilisation, and it leaves its character and canons in all its surroundings and in its literature. Its definite ideas lend themselves readily to expression. A larger society seems an anarchy in contrast: just because of its escape into a greater world it seems powerless to stamp itself in wood or stone; it is condemned as an age of chaos and mutiny, with nothing to declare.
  • You do wrong, I assure you, in misprising these men of the 18th century. They reduced life, to be sure: but by that very means they saw it far more completely than do we, in this lyrical age with our worship of ‘fine excess.’ Here at any rate, and to speak only of its literature, you have a society fencing that literature around—I do not say by forethought or even consciously—but in effect fencing its literature around, to keep it in control and capable of an orderly, a nice, even an exquisite cultivation. Dislike it as you may, I do not think that any of you, as he increases his knowledge of the technique of English Prose, yes, and of English Verse (I do not say of English Poetry) will deny his admiration to the men of the 18th century. The strength of good prose resides not so much in the swing and balance of the single sentence as in the marshalling of argument, the orderly procession of paragraphs, the disposition of parts so that each finds its telling, its proper, place; the adjustment of the means to the end; the strategy which brings its full force into action at the calculated moment and drives the conclusion home upon an accumulated sense of justice. I do not see how any student of 18th century literature can deny its writers—Berkeley or Hume or Gibbon—Congreve or Sheridan—Pope or Cowper—Addison or Steele or Johnson—Burke or Chatham or Thomas Payne—their meed for this, or, if he be an artist, even his homage.

    But it remains true, as your instinct tells you, and as I have admitted, that they achieved all this by help of narrow and artificial boundaries. Of several fatal exclusions let me name but two.

    In the first place, they excluded the Poor; imitating in a late age the Athenian tradition of a small polite society resting on a large and degraded one. Throughout the 18th century—and the great Whig families were at least as much to blame for this as the Tories—by enclosure of commons, by grants, by handling of the franchise, by taxation, by poor laws in result punitive though intended to be palliative, the English peasantry underwent a steady process of degradation into serfdom: into a serfdom which, during the first twenty years of the next century, hung constantly and precariously on the edge of actual starvation. The whole theory of culture worked upon a principle of double restriction; of restricting on the one hand the realm of polite knowledge to propositions suitable for a scholar and a gentleman: and, on the other, the numbers of the human family permitted to be either. The theory deprecated enthusiasm, as it discountenanced all ambition in a poor child to rise above what Sir Spencer Walpole called ‘his inevitable and hereditary lot’—to soften which and make him acquiescent in it was, with a Wilberforce or a Hannah More, the last dream of restless benevolence.


    Also these 18th century men fenced off the whole of our own Middle English and medieval literature—fenced off Chaucer and Dunbar, Malory and Berners—as barbarous and ‘Gothic.’ They treated these writers with little more consideration than Boileau had thought it worth while to bestow on Villon or on Ronsard—enfin Malherbe! As for Anglo-Saxon literature, one may safely say that, save by Gray and a very few others, its existence was barely surmised.

    You may or may not find it harder to forgive them that they ruled out moreover a great part of the literature of the preceding century as offensive to urbane taste or as they would say, ‘disgusting.’ They disliked it mainly, one suspects, as one age revolts from the fashion of another—as some of you, for example, revolt from the broad plenty of Dickens (Heaven forgive you) or the ornament of Tennyson. Some of the great writers of that age definitely excluded God from their scheme of things: others included God fiercely, but with circumscription and limitation. I think it fair to say of them generally that they hated alike the mystical and the mysterious, and, hating these, could have little commerce with such poetry as Crashaw’s and Vaughan’s or such speculation as gave ardour to the prose of the Cambridge Platonists. Johnson’s famous attack, in his Life of Cowley, upon the metaphysical followers of Donne ostensibly assails their literary conceits, but truly and at bottom rests its quarrel against an attitude of mind, in respect of which he lived far enough removed to be unsympathetic yet near enough to take denunciation for a duty. Johnson, to put it vulgarly, had as little use for Vaughan’s notion of poetry as he would have had for Shelley’s claim that it

  • feeds on the aëreal kisses
  • Of shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses,
  • and we have only to set ourselves back in Shelley’s age and read (say) the verse of Frere and Canning in The Anti-Jacobin, to understand how frantic a lyrist—let be how frantic a political figure—Shelley must have appeared to well regulated minds.


    All this literature which our forefathers excluded has come back upon us: and concurrently we have to deal with the more serious difficulty (let us give thanks for it) of a multitude of millions insurgent to handsel their long-deferred heritage. I shall waste no time in arguing that we ought not to wish to withhold it, because we cannot if we would. And thus the problem becomes a double one, of distribution as well as of selection.

    Now in the first place I submit that this distribution should be free: which implies that our selection must be confined to books and methods of teaching. There must be no picking and choosing among the recipients, no appropriation of certain forms of culture to certain ‘stations of life’ with a tendency, conscious or unconscious, to keep those stations as stationary as possible.

    Merely by clearing our purpose to this extent we shall have made no inconsiderable advance. For even the last century never quite got rid of its predecessor’s fixed idea that certain degrees of culture were appropriate to certain stations of life. With what gentle persistence it prevails, for example, in Jane Austen’s novels; with what complacent rhetoric in Tennyson (and in spite of Lady Clara Vere de Vere)! Let me remind you that by allowing an idea to take hold of our animosity we may be as truly ‘possessed’ by it as though it claimed our allegiance. The notion that culture may be drilled to march in step with a trade or calling endured through the Victorian age of competition and possessed the mind not only of Samuel Smiles who taught by instances how a bright and industrious boy might earn money and lift himself out of his ‘station,’ but of Ruskin himself, who in the first half of Sesame and Lilies, in the lecture Of Kings’ Treasuries, discussing the choice of books, starts vehemently and proceeds at length to denounce the prevalent passion for self-advancement—of rising above one’s station in life—quite as if it were the most important thing, willy-nilly, in talking of the choice of books. Which means that, to Ruskin, just then, it was the most formidable obstacle. Can we, at this time of day, do better by simply turning the notion out of doors? Yes, I believe that we can: and upon this credo:

    I believe that while it may grow—and grow infinitely—with increase of learning, the grace of a liberal education, like the grace of Christianity, is so catholic a thing—so absolutely above being trafficked, retailed, apportioned, among ‘stations in life’—that the humblest child may claim it by indefensible right, having a soul.

    Further, I believe that Humanism is, or should be, no decorative appanage, purchased late in the process of education within the means of a few: but a quality, rather, which should, and can, condition all teaching, from a child’s first lesson in Reading: that its unmistakable hall-mark can be impressed upon the earliest task set in an Elementary School.


    I am not preaching red Radicalism in this: I am not telling you that Jack is as good as his master: if he were, he would be a great deal better; for he would understand Homer (say) as well as his master, the child of parents who could afford to have him taught Greek. As Greek is commonly taught, I regret to say, whether they have learnt it or not makes a distressingly small difference to most boys’ appreciation of Homer. Still it does make a vast difference to some, and should make a vast difference to all. And yet, if you will read the passage in Kinglake’s Eöthen in which he tells—in words that find their echo in many a reader’s memory—of his boyish passion for Homer—and if you will note that the boy imbibed his passion, after all, through the conduit of Pope’s translation—you will acknowledge that, for the human boy, admission to much of the glory of Homer’s realm does not depend upon such mastery as a boy of fifteen or sixteen possesses over the original. But let me quote you a few sentences:
  • I, too, loved Homer, but not with a scholar’s love. The most humble and pious among women was yet so proud a mother that she could teach her first-born son no Watts’s hymns, no collects for the day; she could teach him in earliest childhood no less than this—to find a home in his saddle, and to love old Homer, and all that old Homer sung. True it is, that the Greek was ingeniously rendered into English, the English of Pope even, but not even a mesh like that can screen an earnest child from the fire of Homer’s battles.
  • I pored over the Odyssey as over a story-book, hoping and fearing for the hero whom yet I partly scorned. But the Iliad—line by line I clasped it to my brain with reverence as well as with love.…
  • The impatient child is not grubbing for beauties, but pushing the siege; the women vex him with their delays, and their talking,… but all the while that he thus chafes at the pausing of the action, the strong vertical light of Homer’s poetry is blazing so full upon the people and things of the Iliad, that soon to the eyes of the child they grow familiar as his mother’s shawl.…
  • It was not the recollection of school nor college learning, but the rapturous and earnest reading of my childhood, which made me bend forward so longingly to the plains of Troy.
  • IX

    It is among the books then, and not among the readers, that we must do our selecting. But how? On what principle or principles?

    Sometime in the days of my youth, a newspaper, The Pall Mall Gazette, then conducted by W. T. Stead, made a conscious effort to solve the riddle by inviting a number of eminent men to compile lists of the Hundred Best Books. Now this invitation rested on a fallacy. Considering for a moment how personal a thing is Literature, you will promptly assure yourselves that there is—there can be—no such thing as the Hundred Best Books. If you yet incline to toy with the notion, carry it on and compile a list of the Hundred Second-best Books: nay, if you will, continue until you find yourself solemnly, with a brow corrugated by responsibility, weighing the claims (say) of Velleius Paterculus, Paul and Virginia and Mr Jorrocks to admission among the Hundred Tenth-best Books. There is in fact no positive hierarchy among the classics. You cannot appraise the worth of Charles Lamb against the worth of Casaubon: the worth of Hesiod against the worth of Madame de Sévigné: the worth of Théophile Gautier against the worth of Dante or Thomas Hobbes or Macchiavelli or Jane Austen. They all wrote with pens, in ink, upon paper: but you no sooner pass beyond these resemblances than your comparison finds itself working in impari materia.

    Also why should the Best Books be 100 in number, rather than 99 or 199? And under what conditions is a book a Best Book? There are moods in which we not only prefer Pickwick to the Rig-Vedas or Sakuntalà, but find that it does us more good. In our day again I pay all respect to Messrs Dent’s Everyman’s Library. It was a large conception carefully planned. But, in the nature of things, Everyman is going to arrive at a point beyond which he will find it more and more difficult to recognise himself: at a point, let us say, when Everyman, opening a new parcel, starts to doubt if, after all, it wouldn’t be money in his pocket to be Somebody Else.


    And yet, may be, The Pall Mall Gazette was on the right scent. For it was in search of masterpieces: and, however we teach, our trust will in the end repose upon masterpieces, upon the great classics of whatever Language or Literature we are handling: and these, in any language are neither enormous in number and mass, nor extraordinarily difficult to detect, nor (best of all) forbidding to the reader by reason of their own difficulty. Upon a selected few of these—even upon three, or two, or one—we may teach at least a surmise of the true delight, and may be some measure of taste whereby our pupil will, by an inner guide, be warned to choose the better and reject the worse when we turn him loose to read for himself.

    To this use of masterpieces I shall devote my final lecture.