Monday, August 29, 2022

Sir John Lubbock's 100 Books

Sir John Lubbock: The Pleasures of Life (1887)

One fateful evening in 1886, the Principal of the London Working-Men’s College, Sir John Lubbock, gave a speech to that institution. In it he outlined a list of 100 vital books which, if read attentively, might in themselves constitute a liberal education.

The idea took off with a vengeance, and after the list was reprinted in his essay-collection The Pleasures of Life, earnest self-improvers everywhere started to collect the various volumes.

Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913)

Lubbock himself never attended university, though he came from a privileged background, and had been educated at Eton by his wealthy family. A banker by profession, his real passions were archaeology and evolutionary biology, and he wrote extensively on both subjects.

Amongst other achievements, he was the the first to coin the terms "Neolithic" and "Palaeolithic" in one of his books about early man.

Antoine Galland: The Arabian Nights' Entertainments (London: Routledge, 1865)

The very first copy of the Arabian Nights I ever owned (rather similar to the one pictured above, but more battered and dogeared) proudly proclaimed itself as one of these "hundred books" - which gives some clue to the bonanza this must have constituted for enterprising publishers in the late nineteenth century.

Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure (1894-95)

It's easy to see how this idea of self-betterment through focussed reading informs Hardy's last prose masterpiece Jude the Obscure, with its almost unbearably poignant account of rural autodidact Jude's attempts to enter the sheltered cloisters of Christminster University through sheer effort and application. All in vain, of course (it is, after all, a Thomas Hardy novel).

There's a particularly poignant scene where Jude is sitting miserably by the side of the road realising the folly of his grand ambitions, and longing for someone to come by and comfort him:
But nobody did come, because nobody does: and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world.

18 of the 100 Books (London: Routledge, 1890)
[The Shi King of Confucius; The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer; Darwin's Journal of Discoveries; The Origin of Species; The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I and II; Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations; Captain Cook's Voyages; Humboldt's Travels I-III; Scott's Ivanhoe; La Morte D'Arthur; Spinoza; The Arabian Nights' Entertainments; Bacon's Novum Organum; The Nibelungenleid; Thackeray's Pendennis]

Here, in any case, is a slightly tidied-up list of the original 100 books. It's rather hard to make the numbers fit consistently, given Lubbock's habit of listing multiple works under one author or, alternatively, listing separate works by a writer under different categories. He also published different versions of it at different times.

Each entry has been linked to a free online text wherever possible.

[Works by Living Authors are omitted]

  1. The Holy Bible
  2. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
  3. Epictetus
  4. Aristotle’s Ethics
  5. The Analects of Confucius
  6. St Hilaire’s Le Bouddha et sa religion
  7. Wake’s Apostolic Fathers
  8. Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ
  9. Confessions of St. Augustine
  10. The Koran
  11. Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
  12. Comte’s Catechism of Positive Philosophy
  13. Pascal’s Pensées
  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 Apology, Phædo, & Republic
  19. Xenophon’s Memorabilia
  20. Aristotle’s Politics
  21. The Public Orations of Demosthenes
  22. Cicero’s Treatises on Friendship and Old Age
  23. Plutarch’s Lives
  24. Berkeley’s Human Knowledge
  25. Descartes’ Discours sur la Méthode
  26. Locke’s On the Conduct of the Understanding
  27. Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey
  28. Hesiod
  29. Virgil
  30. Lucretius [1]
  31. The Mahabharata & The Ramayana [Epitomized in Talboy Wheeler’s History of India]
  32. Firdausi’s Shahnameh [Included in Persian Literature]
  33. The Nibelungenlied
  34. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur
  35. The Shi King [or Book of Songs]
  36. Kalidasa’s Sakuntala [or The Lost Ring]
  37. Aeschylus’ Tragedies and Fragments & Trilogy
  38. Sophocles’ Oedipus
  39. Euripides’ Medea
  40. Aristophanes’ The Knights & The Clouds [In Comedies]
  41. Horace
  42. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
  43. Shakespeare
  44. Milton’s Paradise Lost & minor poems
  45. Dante’s Divina Commedia (Cary’s translation) (Longfellow’s translation)
  46. Spenser’s Faerie Queene
  47. Dryden’s Poems [vol 1 & vol 2]
  48. Scott’s Poems [The Lady of the Lake & Marmion]
  49. Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer & The Curse of Kehama [vol 1 & vol 2]
  50. Selected Poems of William Wordsworth
  51. Pope's Essay on Criticism; Essay on Man; Rape of the Lock and Other Poems
  52. Burns
  53. Byron’s Childe Harold
  54. Gray [in The Poetical Works of Johnson, Parnell, Gray, and Smollett]
  55. Herodotus [vol 1 & vol 2]
  56. Xenophon’s Anabasis
  57. Thucydides
  58. Tacitus’ Germania
  59. Livy
  60. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  61. Hume’s History of England
  62. Grote’s History of Greece
  63. Carlyle’s French Revolution
  64. Green’s Short History of England
  65. Lewes’ History of Philosophy [vol 1 & vol 2]
  66. The Arabian Nights
  67. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
  68. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
  69. Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield
  70. Cervantes’ Don Quixote
  71. Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  72. Molière
  73. Schiller’s William Tell
  74. Sheridan’s The Critic, School for Scandal, & The Rivals
  75. Carlyle’s Past and Present
  76. Bacon’s Novum Organum
  77. Smith’s Wealth of Nations
  78. Mill’s Political Economy
  79. Cook’s Voyages
  80. Humboldt’s Travels [vol 1, vol 2 & vol 3]
  81. White’s Natural History of Selborne
  82. Darwin's Origin of Species & Naturalist’s Voyage
  83. Mill’s Logic
  84. Bacon’s Essays
  85. Montaigne’s Essays
  86. Hume’s Essays
  87. Macaulay’s Essays
  88. Addison’s Essays
  89. Emerson’s Essays
  90. Burke’s Select Works
  91. Smiles’ Self-Help
  92. Voltaire's Zadig & Micromegas
  93. Goethe’s Faust & Autobiography
  94. Miss Austen’s Emma, or Pride and Prejudice [2]
  95. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair & Pendennis
  96. Dickens' Pickwick, David Copperfield
  97. Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii
  98. George Eliot’s Adam Bede
  99. Kingsley’s Westward Ho!
  100. Scott’s Waverley Novels


1. Lubbock notes that this is “less generally suitable than most of the others in the list.”
2. Lubbock chose later to omit this entry, commenting that English novelists were “somewhat over-represented.”

A revised version of the list was published in 1930, after Lubbock's death, with the following substituted entries:
  • Comte’s Catechism [no. 12] was replaced by Seneca
  • Dryden’s Poems [no. 47] was replaced by Tennyson’s Idylls of the King
  • Hume’s Essays [no. 86] was replaced by Ruskin’s Modern Painters

Even making due allowance for the era in which it was compiled, it remains a somewhat surprising selection. There are only two female authors - both English novelists - and Lubbock eventually chose to omit Jane Austen and retain only George Eliot. Even there, it's her first novel Adam Bede, rather than the more mature Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda, which makes the cut.

There's also what would now seem a disproportionate emphasis on Christian theology, ancient and modern. I count no fewer than ten such volumes, ranging from Saint Augustine to Keble's Christian Year. By contrast, there's one book on Buddhism, another on Confucianism, one on Hinduism, and another on Islam.

There are ten British novelists there, too. But who would now think to include Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Kingsley among their number? Cervantes, Goethe, and Voltaire are the only other fiction writers on the list. It's odd, moreover, to see the latter represented by Zadig and Micromegas rather than the more obvious Candide.

It's only to be expected, given Victorian ideas on education, that the Greek and Roman classics should make up a substantial part of the listings - Poets such as Homer, Hesiod, Horace, Lucretius & Virgil; Dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides & Aristophanes; Philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus & Marcus Aurelius; Historians such as Herodotus, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus, Thucydides & Xenophon; Orators such as Demosthenes & Cicero ... In total, they make up almost a quarter of the readings.

To do him justice, Lubbock himself was the first to admit the limitations of his project:
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.
He goes on to specify:
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.
There's a lot more detail about his specific choices in chapter 4 of The Pleasures of Life, which makes very interesting reading. His reservations about some of the inclusions are particularly revealing. For instance:
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.
Or, on the subject of which novelists to include:
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.

Pierre de Marivaux: La Vie de Marianne (1731-45)

Strangely enough, I've actually read La Vie de Marianne. It's a surprisingly entertaining novel, given that its principal subject is the endless rehearsal of the sufferings and woes of the title character - whom I'd always assumed to have been suggested by Samuel Richardson's Pamela in his 1740 novel of that name. Now, however, I see that the dates don't fit, and that if there was influence, it must have been in the opposite direction.

I'm not sure that I'd put it in any lists of must-reads, mind you, but then that just illustrates the invidiousness of such choices. The moment you start to legislate about such things, you end up putting in bizarre tomes such as Samuel Smiles' Self-Help rather than, say, Marx's Das Kapital.

Would it do a modern reader any harm to sit down and start reading their way through Sir John Lubbock's hundred books? No, I don't think so. At the very least it would give you quite a good idea of the classical idea of the canon - as it stood in the late nineteenth century.

I'm not sure that it would do you all that much good, though. You'd have to substitute more reliable texts on the world's great religions, more up-to-date histories than Carlyle's or Grote's, and a greatly increased number of books on economics and science. In fact, you might end up with something like this:

Britannica: Great Books of the Western World (1990)

The Britannica Great Books of the Western World series was first published, as a set of 54 volumes, in 1952:
The original editors had three criteria for including a book in the series drawn from Western Civilization: the book must have been relevant to contemporary matters, and not only important in its historical context; it must be rewarding to re-read repeatedly with respect to liberal education; and it must be a part of "the great conversation about the great ideas", relevant to at least 25 of the 102 "Great Ideas" as identified by the editor of the series's comprehensive index, ... dubbed the "Syntopicon".
A second edition, enlarged to 60 volumes, was published in 1990. Among other revisions, "Four women authors were included, where previously there were none."

You can look at the original lists in the Wikipedia article above. I suspect that most of us probably have a few odd volumes of the series kicking around. The double-columns of print and large format make them difficult to read, but they are a useful source for otherwise difficult to locate texts. I see that I myself own ten of them - marked below in bold - though I've never consciously collected them:
  1. The Great Conversation
  2. Syntopicon I
  3. Syntopicon II
  4. Volume 4: Homer (rendered into English prose by Samuel Butler)
    • The Iliad
    • The Odyssey
    Homer. The Iliad & The Odyssey. Trans. Samuel Butler. 1898. Great Books of the Western World, 4. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. 1952. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1989.
  5. Aeschylus / Sophocles / Euripides / Aristophanes
  6. Herodotus / Thucydides
  7. Plato
  8. Volume 8: Aristotle I
    • Categories
    • On Interpretation
    • Prior Analytics
    • Posterior Analytics
    • Topics
    • Sophistical Refutations
    • Physics
    • On the Heavens
    • On Generation and Corruption
    • Meteorology
    • Metaphysics
    • On the Soul
    • Minor biological works
    Aristotle. The Works, Volume 1. Ed. W. D. Ross. Great Books of the Western World, 8. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
  9. Volume 9: Aristotle II
    • History of Animals
    • Parts of Animals
    • On the Motion of Animals
    • On the Gait of Animals
    • On the Generation of Animals
    • Nicomachean Ethics
    • Politics
    • The Athenian Constitution
    • Rhetoric
    • Poetics
    Aristotle. The Works, Volume 2. Ed. W. D. Ross. Great Books of the Western World, 9. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
  10. Hippocrates / Galen
  11. Volume 11:
    • Euclid
      • The Thirteen Books of Euclid's Elements
    • Archimedes
      • On the Sphere and Cylinder
      • Measurement of a Circle
      • On Conoids and Spheroids
      • On Spirals
      • On the Equilibrium of Planes
      • The Sand Reckoner
      • The Quadrature of the Parabola
      • On Floating Bodies
      • Book of Lemmas
      • The Method Treating of Mechanical Problems
    • Apollonius of Perga
      • On Conic Sections
    • Nicomachus of Gerasa
      • Introduction to Arithmetic
    Euclid. The Thirteen Books of the Elements / Archimedes. The Works, Including the Method / Apollonius of Perga. On Conic Sections / Nichomachus of Gerga. Introduction to Arithmetic. Trans. Thomas L. Heath, R. Catesby Taliaferro, & Martin L. D’Ooge. 1926 & 1939. Great Books of the Western World, 11. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
  12. Lucretius / Epictetus / Marcus Aurelius
  13. Virgil
  14. Volume 14: Plutarch
    • The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (translated by John Dryden)
    Plutarch. The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (The Dryden Translation). Great Books of the Western World, 14. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
  15. Tacitus
  16. Volume 16:
    • Ptolemy
      • Almagest, (translated by R. Catesby Taliaferro)
    • Nicolaus Copernicus
      • On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (translated by Charles Glenn Wallis)
    • Johannes Kepler (translated by Charles Glenn Wallis)
      • Epitome of Copernican Astronomy (Books IV–V)
      • The Harmonies of the World (Book V)
    Ptolemy. The Almagest / Copernicus. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres / Kepler. Epitome of Copernican Astronomy: IV & V; The Harmonies of the World: V. Trans. R. Catesby Taliaferro, & Charles Glenn Wallis. Great Books of the Western World, 16. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
  17. Plotinus
  18. St. Augustine
  19. Volume 19: Thomas Aquinas
    • Summa Theologica (First part complete, selections from second part, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province and revised by Daniel J. Sullivan)
    Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Theologica, 1. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 1941. Rev. Daniel J. Sullivan. Great Books of the Western World, 19. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
  20. Volume 20: Thomas Aquinas
    • Summa Theologica (Selections from second and third parts and supplement, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province and revised by Daniel J. Sullivan)
    Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Theologica, 2. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 1941. Rev. Daniel J. Sullivan. Great Books of the Western World, 20. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
  21. Dante
  22. Chaucer
  23. Machiavelli / Hobbes
  24. Rabelais
  25. Montaigne
  26. Shakespeare I
  27. Shakespeare II
  28. Gilbert / Galileo / Harvey
  29. Cervantes: Don Quixote
  30. Sir Francis Bacon
  31. Descartes / Spinoza
  32. Milton
  33. Pascal
  34. Newton / Huygens
  35. Locke/ Berkeley / Hume
  36. Swift: Gulliver's Travels / Sterne: Tristram Shandy
  37. Fielding: Tom Jones
  38. Montesquieu / Rousseau
  39. Adam Smith
  40. Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I
  41. Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire II
  42. Kant
  43. American State Papers / Hamilton, Madison, Jay: The Federalist / John Stuart Mill
  44. Boswell: Life of Johnson
  45. Lavoisier / Fourier / Faraday
  46. Hegel
  47. Goethe: Faust
  48. Melville: Moby Dick
  49. Darwin
  50. Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels
  51. Tolstoy: War and Peace
  52. Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov
  53. Volume 53: William James
    • The Principles of Psychology
    James, William. The Principles of Psychology. Great Books of the Western World, 53. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
  54. Volume 54: Sigmund Freud
    • The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis
    • Selected Papers on Hysteria
    • The Sexual Enlightenment of Children
    • The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy
    • Observations on "Wild" Psycho-Analysis
    • The Interpretation of Dreams
    • On Narcissism
    • Instincts and Their Vicissitudes
    • Repression
    • The Unconscious
    • A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis
    • Beyond the Pleasure Principle
    • Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego
    • The Ego and the Id
    • Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety
    • Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
    • Civilization and Its Discontents
    • New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis
    Freud, Sigmund. The Major Works. Great Books of the Western World, 54. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.

Again it seems, in retrospect, 70 years on, quite an odd list. It's very anglocentric, for a start: Boswell's Life of Johnson, a whole slew of novels and other literary works easily available elsewhere ... but it does represent a certain advance on Lubbock, insofar (at least) that it admits upfront its 'Western' orientation - if you'll forgive the pun.

The editors were well aware of this, however, so when they revised it in 1990, they added six new volumes of more contemporary material: one on Philosophy, one on Science, one on Economics, one on Anthropology, and two on Modernist Literature (you can see further details here).

Like all such grand intellectual enterprises, however, it looks now more like an index of the blind-spots in the late twentieth-century mind than a truly satisfactory summary of the best of Western thought.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

So what's my conclusion? "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," as Henry Thoreau put it so succinctly (or, as in this case, new book-bindings). But he went on to say: "and not rather a new wearer of clothes" - which is perhaps the nub of the matter.

No set list of readings will produce an original, free-thinking intellect, whether it be Sir John Lubbocks's 100 books, the Britannica Great Books, the Harvard Classics, or The Sacred Books of the East. That's not to say that such collections of books have no abiding usefulness, however - it's probably better to take them as a series of local guides than as a grand, overarching index to the nature of the universe, however.

And, in the meantime, it can be useful - and salutary - to skim through such lists and remind yourself of just how far you've fallen short of the minimum knowledge expected of either a nineteenth-century or a more contemporary 'common reader'!

David Morrell & Hank Wagner: Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads (2010)

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