The Book List: Meet Sir John Lubbock, Godfather of the must-read listicle

Every Wednesday, Alex Johnson delves into a unique collection of titles. This week he looks back at an MP’s musings that got the ball rolling

Alex Johnson
Tuesday 24 April 2018 23:12 BST
Lubbock, banker and politician, is all but forgotten today
Lubbock, banker and politician, is all but forgotten today

The Bible
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
Aristotle’s Ethics
Analects of Confucius
St Hilaire’s Le Bouddha et sa religion
Wake’s Apostolic Fathers
Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ
Confessions of St. Augustine (Dr Pusey)
The Koran (portions of)
Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
Comte’s Catechism of Positive Philosophy
Pascal’s Pensées
Butler’s Analogy of Religion
Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying
Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
Keble’s Christian Year
Plato’s Dialogues; at any rate, the Apology, Phædo, and Republic
Xenophon’s Memorabilia
Aristotle’s Politics
Demosthene’s De Corona
Cicero’s De Officiis, De Amicitia, and de Senectute
Plutarch’s Lives
Berkeley’s Human Knowledge
Descartes’s Discours sur la Méthode
Locke’s On the Conduct of the Understanding

It was to be: of course Shakespeare makes the list

Epitomized in Talboys Wheeler’s History of India, vols i and ii:
Maha Bharata
The Shahnameh
The Nibelungenlied
Malory’s Morte d’Arthur
The Sheking
Aeschylus’s Prometheus
Trilogy of Orestes
Sophocles’s Oedipus
Euripides’s Medea
Aristophanes’s The Knights and Clouds
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Perhaps in Morris’s edition; or, if expurgated, in C Clarke’s, or Mrs Haweis’s)
Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lycidas, and the shorter poems
Dante’s Divina Commedia
Spenser’s Faerie Queen
Dryden’s Poems
Scott’s Poems
Wordsworth (Mr Arnold’s selection)
Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer, the Curse of Kehama
Pope’s Essay on Criticism
Essay on Man

Rape of the Lock
Byron’s Childe Harold
Xenophon’s Anabasis
Tacitus’s Germania
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
Hume’s History of England
Grote’s History of Greece
Carlyle’s French Revolution
Green’s Short History of England

Two classics by ‘Miss’ Austen are included 

Lewes’s History of Philosophy
Arabian Nights

Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield
Cervante’s Don Quixote
Boswell’s Life of Johnson
Sheridan’s The Critic, School for Scandal, and The Rivals
Carlyle’s Past and Present
Smiles’s Self-Help
Bacon’s Novum Organum
Smith’s Wealth of Nations (part of)
Mill’s Political Economy
Cook’s Voyages
Humboldt’s Travels
White’s Natural History of Selborne
Darwin’s Origin of Species
Naturalist’s Voyage
Mill’s Logic
Bacon’s Essays
Montaigne’s Essays
Hume’s Essays
Macaulay’s Essays
Addison’s Essays
Emerson’s Essays
Burke’s Select works
Voltaire’s Zadig
Goethe’s Faust, and Autobiography
Miss Austen’s Emma, or Pride and Prejudice
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair
Dicken’s Pickwick
David Copperfield
Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii
George Eliot’s Adam Bede
Kingsley’s Westward Ho!
Scott’s Novels

Homer joins several other ancient minds

Wherever you look there are endless listicles of the “1,001 Novels You MUST Read Before You’re 40” variety. We have the Godfather of the Best Books List to thank for setting this hare running: banker and philanthropist Sir John Lubbock (1834–1913). Though all but forgotten today, Lubbock was an important man, the MP responsible for introducing the Bank Holidays Act (1871), and as principal of the Working Men’s College in London, he gave a speech in 1886 in which he listed 100 books.

“I drew up the list,” he said, which excluded living authors, “not as that of the hundred best books, but, which is very different, of those which on the whole are perhaps best worth reading.” It was then published and became a bestseller, with a knock-on effect on the books mentioned. It is printed above, and in the order he listed the titles. His top 100 (which appears to be more like 100-ish on close inspection) was organised by category, eg philosophy, travel, history, but he was wary about a “science” section on the basis that “science is so rapidly progressive”.

Wilde treated the concept with disdain

Also, it is important to note that these were not personal favourites. “As regards the Shi King and the Analects of Confucius, I must humbly confess that I do not greatly admire either; but I recommended these because they are held in the most profound veneration by the Chinese race.” Following close on Lubbock’s coattails was Dean of Canterbury and Marlborough headmaster Frederic William Farrar, who wrote a series of monthly articles for The Sunday Magazine in 1898 along similar lines, though with rather more literature. But not everybody was a great fan of the concept. Oscar Wilde wrote to The Pall Mall Gazette in 1886 that a more important list would be the Worst Hundred Books, so readers would know what to avoid. He then suggested dividing books into three classes:

Books to read:

Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and Grote’s History of Greece.

Books to reread:

Plato and Keats

Books not to read at all:

Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

Philip Waller in his excellent book Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870–1918 writes that these kinds of “best books” lists seem to some people like a “chronic exercise in futility”.

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

Tap here to buy

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