Tag Archives: Thomas Gray

Lubbock’s List: The Original ‘Must-Read’ List

This post is a break from “our usual programming” to look at a surprisingly modern phenomenon in publishing: “must-read lists.” Included below is probably the most famous example, with links to free copies of over 100 books, mostly classics.

“The choice of books, like that of friends, is a serious duty.”
—Sir John Lubbock.

What Did People Read in Victorian Times?

I came across something in F. W. Boreham’s Ships of Pearl the other day, where he mentioned in passing that Sir John Lubbock had created a list of 100 books that anyone should read if they want to think of themselves as “well-read.” Out of pure curiosity, I found the list online, and I wanted to take a closer look at what’s there. Note: The list was partially reported in The Spectator on the day the speech was given in 1886, but it was  later published fully with comments (and a few changes) in a book by Sir John Lubbock (see chapter 4 of The Pleasures of Life).

F. W. Boreham, who informed me of the list, read many of the philosophers, historians, playwrights, and poets on this list. I would guess that he read close to half of the works on this list. The list, therefore, is a pretty strong indicator of what was popular then. It is interesting to think that a preacher in the 1910s and 1920s might be reading substantially the same literature as the layman, whereas today I would expect that I have almost no books in common with the library of non-churchgoers.

Three books on this list that were hugely influential, but are rarely explored today, would be: Boswell’s Life of Johnson (seminal in the field of biography), Keble’s Christian Year (popularized 365-day devotionals), and Smiles’ Self-Help (foundational to the modern genre of self-help).

The Widespread Influence of Lubbock’s List

Lubbock’s list was originally presented to the Working Men’s College in London, of which he was the principal from 1883 to 1899. Notably, the list set working-class men running for the Classics: Lubbock had high praise not just for Plato and Homer, but Plutarch, Xenophon, and Epictetus, names the mere mention of which would set most Americans yawning today. Lubbock also comments about omitting novels, modern historians (all “kings and queens . . . dates of battles and wars”), and modern science (“so rapidly progressive”).

This list also set off a chain reaction in English literary circles: first, of comments and criticisms; then, of scholars and academies creating their own lists; thirdly, of publishers creating series like Great Books, which were very successful into the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Purpose of the List

In a way, Lubbock’s list is the original ‘must-read’ list, but it is not by any means a list of his personal favorites. If you’re surprised by what’s there (a Victorian MP recommending the Qurʼān?), note Lubbock’s comment:

I drew up the list, not as that of the hundred best books, but, which is very different, of those which have been most frequently recommended as best worth reading.

On the Qurʼān, for instance, he writes:

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.

Nabeel Qureshi, though, would point out the cultural mismatch of making an analogy between Christians’ view of the Bible and Muslims’ views of the Qurʼān—especially noting the orality of many Muslim-majority cultures, and the recentness of widespread literacy.

More Like a Hundred-ish

The list is purported to be “a hundred,” but many of the “books” listed are either volume sets or series, and as listed it even exceeds 100 works, so that the actual number of “books” here is about 189 (!) by my count. (Some are very short, though, right?)

I’ve linked all of them to Project Gutenberg for reference. Out of all 100+ works, less than 10 were not on Project Gutenberg, which is a tribute to the enduring popularity of the books that Lubbock chose.

  1. The Holy Bible (Latin) (Spanish) (Swedish)
  2. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (German)
  3. Epictetus
  4. Aristotle’s Ethics (Greek: NE vol 1, NE vol 2)
  5. The Analects of Confucius
  6. St Hilaire’s Le Bouddha et sa religion . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but it is available here and (in French) here
  7. Wake’s Apostolic Fathers . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but it is available here
  8. Thos. à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ (French)
  9. Confessions of St. Augustine (Dr. Pusey) (Latin)
  10. The Koran (portions of)
  11. Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
  12. Comte’s Catechism of Positive Philosophy . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but you can read it here
  13. Pascal’s Pensées [“Thoughts”]
  14. Butler’s Analogy of Religion
  15. Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but you can read it here
  16. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (Finnish)
  17. Keble’s Christian Year
  18. Plato’s Dialogues; at any rate, the Apology (Greek), Phædo (Finnish) (Greek), and Republic (Greek)
  19. Xenophon’s Memorabilia [listed twice]
  20. Aristotle’s Politics
  21. Demosthenes’ De Corona [“On the Crown,” excerpt from The Public Orations of Demosthenes, vol. 1]
  22. Cicero’s De Officiis (Latin), De Amicitia [“On Friendship”], and De Senectute [“On Old Age”] (Latin) [the first two are available in English as Treatises on Friendship and Old Age; De Senectute is in English here]
  23. Plutarch’s Lives (Greek) (4 volumes)
  24. Berkeley’s Human Knowledge
  25. Descartes’s Discours sur la Méthode
  26. Locke’s On the Conduct of the Understanding . . . isn’t on Project Gutenberg but you can read it here and here and here 
  27. Homer’s Iliad (French) (Greek) (Latin) (Spanish) and Odyssey (Finnish) (French) (Greek) (Latin) (Spanish) (Swedish)
  28. Hesiod (Latin) (?)
  29. Virgil (Finnish) (Latin) (Scots) (?)
  30. Epitomized in Talboy Wheeler’s History of India, vols i and ii: Maha Bharata (5 volumes), Ramayana
  31. Firdusi’s Shahnameh [an excerpt from The Persian Literature, vol 1]
  32. The Nibelungenlied (only available in German)
  33. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur 
  34. The Sheking [The Shi King] . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but you can read it here
  35. Kalidasa’s Sakuntala or The Lost Ring
  36. Aeschylus’s Prometheus [excerpt of Tragedies and Fragments] (Greek)
  37. Aeschylus’s Trilogy (Greek) (Swedish)
  38. Sophocles’s Oedipus (Dutch)
  39. Euripides’s Medea
  40. Aristophanes’s The Knights and Clouds (Greek) [both are excerpts from Eleven Comedies vol 1]
  41. Horace
  42. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Italian) (“perhaps in Morris’ edition; or, if expurgated, in C. Clarke’s, or Mrs. Haweis'”)
  43. Shakespeare (8 volumes)
  44. Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lycidas, Comus, and minor poems [Lycidas and Comus are included with the minor poems]
  45. Dante’s Divina Commedia (Cary’s tr.) (Longfellow’s tr.) (Finnish) (Friulian) (German) (Italian) (Spanish)
  46. Spenser’s Fairie Queen (1?)
  47. Dryden’s Poems [vol 1 and vol 2] (2 volumes)
  48. Scott’s Poems [such as The Lady of the Lake, Marmion, ?]
  49. Wordsworth (Mr Arnold’s selection) [Wordsworth’s complete poetical works is in 8 volumes . . . presumably Lubbock means Selected Poems of William Wordsworth]
  50. Pope’s Essay on Criticism
  51. Essay on Man
  52. Rape of the Lock [portion from Rape of the Lock and Other Poems]
  53. Burns
  54. Byron’s Childe Harold
  55. Gray [largest selection seems to be in Poetical Works of Johnson, Parnell, Gray, and Smollett]
  56. Herodotus [vol 1 and vol 2] (Greek: vol 1 and vol 2)
  57. Xenophon’s Anabasis (Greek)
  58. Thucydides (Greek)
  59. Tacitus’s Germania (Finnish) (French) (German)
  60. Livy (4 volumes)
  61. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (6 volumes)
  62. Hume’s History of England (3 volumes)
  63. Grote’s History of Greece (12 volumes!)
  64. Carlyle’s French Revolution (3 volumes)
  65. Green’s Short History of England . . . is surprisingly not on Project Gutenberg but it is here [and Green’s 8-volume “long” history of England is on Gutenberg here]
  66. Lewes’s History of Philosophy . . . is not on Project Gutenberg but it is here: vol 1 and vol 2 
  67. Arabian Nights
  68. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (Dutch)  (Finnish) (French)
  69. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
  70. Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield
  71. Cervante’s Don Quixote (Finnish)
  72. Boswell’s Life of Johnson (2 volumes)
  73. Molière (?) [his complete works are 10 volumes in English]
  74. Schiller’s William Tell
  75. Sheridan’s The Critic, School for Scandal, and The Rivals
  76. Carlyle’s Past and Present
  77. Bacon’s Novum Organum
  78. Smith’s Wealth of Nations (part of)
  79. Mill’s Political Economy
  80. Cook’s Voyages
  81. Humboldt’s Travels [vol 1, vol 2, vol 3] (3 volumes)
  82. White’s Natural History of Selborne
  83. Darwin’s Origin of Species
  84. Naturalist’s Voyage [i.e. The Voyage of the Beagle]
  85. Mill’s Logic
  86. Bacon’s Essays
  87. Montaigne’s Essays (Finnish) (French)
  88. Hume’s Essays
  89. Macaulay’s Essays (6 volumes)
  90. Addison’s Essays
  91. Emerson’s Essays
  92. Burke’s Select Works
  93. Smiles’s Self-Help
  94. Voltaire’s Zadig (Finnish) (French) (Spanish) and Micromegas (Spanish)
  95. Goethe’s Faust (German),  and Autobiography (2 volumes)
  96. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair
  97. Thackeray’s Pendennis
  98. Dickens’ Pickwick
  99. Dickens’ David Copperfield
  100. Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii
  101. George Eliot’s Adam Bede
  102. Kingsley’s Westward Ho!
  103. Scott’s Novels [28 volumes!!]:  The Abbot; Anne of Geierstein [vol 1 and vol 2]; The AntiquaryThe Betrothed[Bizarro was not in print at the time that J. L. created his list]; The Black DwarfThe Bride of Lammermoor (Finnish) (Italian); Castle Dangerous [portion of Waverley Novels vol. 12]; Count Robert of Paris [portion of Waverley Novels vol. 12]; The Fair Maid of PerthThe Fortunes of NigelGuy ManneringThe Heart of MidlothianIvanhoe (Dutch); KenilworthA Legend of MontroseThe MonasteryOld MortalityPeveril of the PeakThe PirateQuentin DurwardRedgauntletRob Roy (French); Saint Ronan’s Well[The Siege of Malta had not been fully printed at the time J. L. created his list]; The Talisman (Dutch); Waverley (Finnish); Woodstock.
  104. [Selections from the Writings of Ruskin (added in 1930 edition)]
  105. [Ruskin’s Modern Painters (added in 1930 edition)] (5 volumes)

 

Note: Previous Lubbock lists had included:

  1. Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer, The Curse of Kehama (vol 1 and vol 2)
  2. Lucretius [“less generally suitable than most of the others in the list”]
  3. Miss Austen’s Emma, or Pride and Prejudice [Lubbock omitted them, commenting that English novelists were “somewhat over-represented”]
  4. Locke’s Human Understanding (vol 1 and vol 2) [apparently mistaken for Conduct of the Understanding in some lists, since the titles are so similar]
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