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Books That I Loved As A Boy
by [?]

“It is one thing,” said my Uncle Peter, “to be perfectly honest. But it is quite another thing to tell the truth.”

“Are you honest in that remark,” I asked, “or are you merely telling the truth?”

“Both,” he answered, with twinkling eyes, “for that is an abstract remark, in which species of discourse truth-telling is comparatively easy. Abstract remarks are a great relief to the lazy honest man. They spare him the trouble of meticulous investigation of unimportant facts. But a concrete remark, touching upon a number of small details, is full of traps for the truth-teller.”

“You agree, then,” said I, “with what the Psalmist said in his haste: ‘All men are liars’?”

“Not in the least,” he replied, laying down the volume which he was apparently reading when he interrupted himself. “I have leisure enough to perceive at once the falsity of that observation which the honest Psalmist recorded for our amusement. The real liars, conscious, malicious, wilful falsifiers, must always be a minority in the world, because their habits tend to bring them to an early grave or a reformatory. It is the people who want to tell the truth, and try to, but do not quite succeed, who are in the majority. Just look at this virtuous little volume which I was reading when you broke in upon me. It is called ‘Books that Have Influenced Me.’ A number of authors, politicians, preachers, doctors, and rich men profess to give an account of the youthful reading which has been most powerful in the development of their manly minds and characters. To judge from what they have written here you would suppose that these men were as mature and discriminating at sixteen as they are at sixty. They tell of great books, serious books, famous books. But they say little or nothing of the small, amusing books, the books full of fighting and adventure, the books of good stuff poorly written, in which every honest boy, at some time in his life, finds what he wants. They are silent, too, about the books which as a matter of fact had a tremendous influence on them–the plain, dull school-books. For my part, if you asked me what books had influenced me, I should not be telling the truth if my answer left out Webster’s Spelling-Book and Greenleaf’s Arithmetic, though I did not adore them extravagantly.”

“That’s just the point, Uncle Peter,” said I, “these distinguished men were really trying to tell you about the books that delighted and inspired their youth, the books that they loved as boys.”

“Well,” said my Uncle Peter, “if it comes to love, and reminiscences of loving, that is precisely the region in which the exact truth is least frequently told. Maturity casts its prim and clear-cut shadow backwards upon the vague and glittering landscape of youth. Whether he speaks of books or of girls, the aged reminiscent attributes to himself a delicacy of taste, a singleness and constancy of affection, and a romantic fervour of devotion, which he might have had, but probably did not. He is not in the least to blame for drawing his fancy-picture of a young gentleman. He cannot help it. It is his involuntary tribute to the ideal. Youth dreams in the future tense; age, in the past participle.

“There is no kind of fiction more amiable and engaging than the droll legends of infancy and pious recollections of boyhood. Do you suppose that Wordsworth has given us a complete portrait of the boy that he was, in ‘The Prelude’? He says not a word about the picture of his grandmother that he broke with his whip because the other children gave him a ‘dare,’ nor about the day when he went up into the attic with an old fencing-foil to commit suicide, nor about the girl with whom he fell in love while he was in France. Do you suppose that Stevenson’s ‘Memories and Portraits’ represent the youthful R. L. S. with photographic accuracy and with all his frills? Not at all. Stevenson’s essays are charming; and Wordsworth’s poem is beautiful,–in streaks it is as fine as anything that he ever wrote: but both of these works belong to literature because they are packed full of omissions,–which Stevenson himself called ‘a kind of negative exaggeration.’ No, my dear boy, old Goethe found the right title for a book of reminiscences when he wrote ‘Wahrheit und Dichtung.’ Truth and poetry,–that is what it is bound to be. I don’t know whether Goethe was as honest a man as Wordsworth and Stevenson, but I reckon he told about as much of the truth. Autobiography is usually a man’s view of what his biography ought to be.”