I brought home a literary treasure on Saturday, another volume from our family member whose home is like an Egyptian tomb as far as relics are concerned. What to Read was written by Thomas H. English, who left quite a paper trail, and Willard B. Pope, who didn't. The book was published in 1929 and is in spectacular shape, suggesting this is another book Ruthie never read.
The Foreward begins "What to Read grew out of an attempt to make a series of collateral reading lists for a sophomore survey course in English Literature...The plan finally determined upon was to compile a list of approximately five hundred books from the literature of the world which should be good reading for undergraduates, that is to say, books of high literary merit and equally high contemporary interest." An introductory essay includes the lines "Our times are flooded with printed matter: books, magazines, newspapers, and unceasing showers of pamphlets, tracts, and broadsheets. In the face of the multiplied and multifarious products of the press our powers of selection may be paralyzed."
Except for the part about "tracts, and broadsheets," those words could have just as easily been written in 2009 as 1929.
What to Read is filled with short descriptions of books with the dates of birth and death of their authors. It leans toward authors of the white, dead male variety, as you might expect from a book of that era. In those days, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was considered good reading for undergrads, as was someone named Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) who wrote Mr. Midshipman Easy, which got a new lease on life in 1997. Among the few women included are Jane Austen ("In unpretentious stories of middle-class English life, Miss Austen is probably without peer"), and Elizabeth Gaskell, who got her new lease on life, in the U.S., anyway, by way of Masterpiece Classic. The authors say of Gaskell's book, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, "This is the life of one woman of genius written by another." That's beautiful, but then you get to the entry for Katherine Mansfield, which is headed as "Mansfield, Katherine (Mrs. John Middleton Murry)."
Don't get me started.
I am not fond of the stench of old books, but this one hardly smells at all. I think I might make my way through it, in part so that I can talk about books I haven't read. I'm guessing, though, that What to Read is going to contain a good share of books and authors that were considered worthy ninety years ago but have been lost since then. I want to stumble upon those people and works, maybe give them a mention here to bring them back to life for a moment.
Sigh. More to read.