The Book List: What was on Charles Darwin's reading list?

Every Wednesday, Alex Johnson delves into a unique collection of titles

Alex Johnson
Tuesday 06 March 2018 23:53
The naturalist’s notes were quite detailed – sometimes they included libraries or people who might be able to lend him works
The naturalist’s notes were quite detailed – sometimes they included libraries or people who might be able to lend him works

Humboldt’s New Spain
Richardson’s Fauna Borealis
Entomological Magazine

Decandolle Philosophic on Geographical distrib in Dict.
   Sciences Geolog Soc.
F Cuvier on instinct
L Jenyns paper in Annals of Nat. History
Roy St. Vincent vol. iii p. 164 on unfixed form
Dr Royle on Himalaya type
Smellie Philosophy of Zoology
Falconer remark on the influence of climate
White regular gradation in Man
Lindley introduction to the Natural System
Bevan on honey bee
Dutrochet memoires sur les vegetaux et animaux – on sleep
   & movements of Plants £1. 4s
Prichard; a 3d vol.
Voyage aux terres Australes chapt. xxxix, tom iv. p. 273
Latreille Geographie des insectes 8° p. 181

Starting in 1838 and continuing on and off until 1860, Charles Darwin jotted down in his notebooks the books he planned to read (he then sometimes went back and crossed out those he had finished). The notes were quite detailed, so that as well as the title and author, he sometimes also included libraries or people who might be able to lend him a copy.

Darwin’s son Francis says his father had a very methodical way of approaching his reading. “He had one shelf on which were piled up the books he had not yet read, and another to which they were transferred after having been read, and before being catalogued. He would often groan over his unread books, because there were so many which he knew he should never read.”

The biologist housed 400 volumes in his cabin on HMS Beagle

The list above is a verbatim selection of some of the early entries, among them James Cowles Prichard’s 1813 five-volume Researches into the physical history of Man, a key anthropological text about evolution and natural selection. Other major titles include Thomas Malthus on Population and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, but it was an eclectic mix which also featured Alexandre Jean Baptiste Parent-Duchâlet’s 1836 De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris considéré sous le rapport de l’hygiène publique, de la morale et de l’administration as well as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Other books include various works by William Shakespeare (Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, biographies of Wesley and Cicero, and Virgil’s Georgics. As it was a personal list, not intended for publication, the notebooks also contain various comments:

Read Aristotle to see whether any of my views are ancient
Haller’s Physiology – My Father thinks would contain facts for me
Pliny’s Nat. Hist of world {Well skimmed}
Failed in reading Niebuhr’s Rome
Swift. Stella’s Journal amusing

Not all of these comments were entirely positive. On 15 March 1839, Darwin notes: “Skimmed Pope & Dryden’s Poems – need not try them again” and on 7 May the following year, having looked into Abraham Tucker’s seven-volume The light of nature pursued, felt moved to add: “Skimmed a little of Tucker’s light of nature. Intolerably prolix.”

“When I see the list of books of all kinds which I read and abstracted, including whole series of Journals and Transactions, I am surprised at my industry,” Darwin wrote in his autobiography. Personal and work libraries certainly played a central part in his life. On board HMS Beagle was a library of around 400 volumes, housed in Darwin’s own cabin. Painstaking research has reconstructed much of it and turned it into a searchable online resource at where you can search alphabetically or by category.

Darwin wanted to read Aristotle to find out if any of his views were ancient

Among the titles are Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (6th edition, 20 volumes, plus a one-volume supplement), James Cook’s account of exploring the Pacific Ocean and Sharon Turner’s 1832 “The sacred history of the world, as displayed in the Creation and subsequent events to the Deluge, attempted to be philosophically considered in a series of letters to a son (2nd edition)”.

By category, it can be broken down as:

Travel/Voyages 36 per cent
Natural history 33 per cent
Geology 15 per cent
Atlases/Nautical 7 per cent
Literature 4 per cent
Reference 3 per cent
History 2 per cent

As well as 125 English titles, there were 38 in French, nine in Spanish, seven in German, one in Latin and one in Greek.

‘A Book of Book Lists’ by Alex Johnson, £7.99, British Library Publishing

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