April 29, 1893. Hazlitt’s Stipulation.
“Food, warmth, sleep, and a book; these are all I at present ask–the Ultima Thule of my wandering desires. Do you not then wish for–
a friend in your retreat
Whom you may whisper, ‘Solitude is sweet’?
Expected, well enough: gone, still better. Such attractions are strengthened by distance.”
So Hazlitt wrote in his Farewell to Essay Writing. There never was such an epicure of his moods as Hazlitt. Others might add Omar’s stipulation–
Beside me singing in the wilderness.”
But this addition would have spoiled Hazlitt’s enjoyment. Let us remember that his love affairs had been unprosperous. “Such attractions,” he would object, “are strengthened by distance.” In any case, the book and singer go ill together, and most of us will declare for a spell of each in turn.
What are “The Best Books”?
Suppose we choose the book. What kind of book shall it be? Shall it be an old book which we have forgotten just sufficiently to taste surprise as its felicities come back to us, and remember just sufficiently to escape the attentive strain of a first reading? Or shall it be a new book by an author we love, to be glanced through with no critical purpose (this may be deferred to the second reading), but merely for the lazy pleasure of recognizing the familiar brain at work, and feeling happy, perhaps, at the success of a friend? There is no doubt which Hazlitt would have chosen; he has told us in his essay On Reading Old Books. But after a recent experience I am not sure that I agree with him.
That your taste should approve only the best thoughts of the best minds is a pretty counsel, but one of perfection, and is found in practice to breed prigs. It sets a man sailing round in a vicious circle. What is the best thought of the best minds? That approved by the man of highest culture. Who is the man of highest culture? He whose taste approves the best thoughts of the best minds. To escape from this foolish whirlpool, some of our stoutest bottoms run for that discredited harbor of refuge–Popular Acceptance: a harbor full of shoals, of which nobody has provided even the sketch of a chart.
Some years ago, when the Pall Mall Gazette sent round to all sorts and conditions of eminent men, inviting lists of “The Hundred Best Books”–the first serious attempt to introduce a decimal system into Great Britain–I remember that these eminent men’s replies disclosed nothing so wonderful as their unanimity. We were prepared for Sir John Lubbock, but not, I think, for the host of celebrities who followed his hygienic example, and made a habit of taking the Rig Vedas to bed with them. Altogether their replies afforded plenty of material for a theory that to have every other body’s taste in literature is the first condition of eminence in every branch of the public service. But in one of the lists–I think it was Sir Monier Williams’s–the unexpected really happened. Sir Monier thought that Mr. T.E. Brown’s The Doctor was one of the best books in the world.
Now, the poems of Mr. T.E. Brown are not known to the million. But, like Mr. Robert Bridges, Mr. Brown has always had a band of readers to whom his name is more than that of many an acknowledged classic. I fancy it is a case of liking deeply or scarce at all. Those of us who are not celebrities may be allowed to have favorites who are not the favorites of others, writers who (fortuitously, perhaps) have helped us at some crisis of our life, have spoken to us the appropriate word at the moment of need, and for that reason sit cathedrally enthroned in our affections. To explain why the author of Betsy Lee, Tommy Big-Eyes and The Doctor is more to me than most poets–why to open a new book of his is one of the most exciting literary events that can befall me in now my twenty-ninth year–would take some time, and the explanation might poorly satisfy the reader after all.