This is the ninth chapter of Theodore Roosevelt’s “A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open,” published 101 years ago. I’m sharing this not only for its historical value, but also for its timeless reading wisdom. Some sentences I have bolded for emphasis. – EJS
I am sometimes asked what books I advise men or women to take on holidays in the open. With the reservation of long trips, where bulk is of prime consequence, I can only answer: The same books one would read at home. Such an answer generally invites the further question as to what books I read when at home. To this question I am afraid my answer cannot be so instructive as it ought to be, for I have never followed any plan in reading which would apply to all persons under all circumstances; and indeed it seems to me that no plan can be laid down that will be generally applicable. If a man is not fond of books, to him reading of any kind will be drudgery. I most sincerely commiserate such a person, but I do not know how to help him. If a man or a woman is fond of books he or she will naturally seek the books that the mind and soul demand. Suggestions of a possibly helpful character can be made by outsiders, but only suggestions; and they will probably be helpful about in proportion to the outsider’s knowledge of the mind and soul of the person to be helped.
Of course, if any one finds that he never reads serious literature, if all his reading is frothy and trashy, he would do well to try to train himself to like books that the general agreement of cultivated and sound-thinking persons has placed among the classics. It is as discreditable to the mind to be unfit for sustained mental effort as it is to the body of a young man to be unfit for sustained physical effort. Let man or woman, young man or girl, read some good author, say Gibbon or Macaulay, until sustained mental effort brings power to enjoy the books worth enjoying. When this has been achieved the man can soon trust himself to pick out for himself the particular good books which appeal to him.
The equation of personal taste is as powerful in reading as in eating; and within certain broad limits the matter is merely one of individual preference, having nothing to do with the quality either of the book or of the reader’s mind. I like apples, pears, oranges, pineapples, and peaches. I dislike bananas, alligator-pears, and prunes. The first fact is certainly not to my credit, although it is to my advantage; and the second at least does not show moral turpitude. At times in the tropics I have been exceedingly sorry I could not learn to like bananas, and on round-ups, in the cow country in the old days, it was even more unfortunate not to like prunes; but I simply could not make myself like either, and that was all there was to it.
In the same way I read over and over again “Guy Mannering,” “The Antiquary,” “Pendennis,” “Vanity Fair,” “Our Mutual Friend,” and the “Pickwick Papers”; whereas I make heavy weather of most parts of the “Fortunes of Nigel,” “Esmond,” and the “Old Curiosity Shop”—to mention only books I have tried to read during the last month. I have no question that the latter three books are as good as the first six; doubtless for some people they are better; but I do not like them, any more than I like prunes or bananas.
In the same way I read and reread “Macbeth” and “Othello”; but not “King Lear” nor “Hamlet.” I know perfectly well that the latter are as wonderful as the former—I wouldn’t venture to admit my shortcomings regarding them if I couldn’t proudly express my appreciation of the other two! But at my age I might as well own up, at least to myself, to my limitations, and read the books I thoroughly enjoy.
But this does not mean permitting oneself to like what is vicious or even simply worthless. If any man finds that he cares to read “Bel Ami,” he will do well to keep a watch on the reflex centres of his moral nature, and to brace himself with a course of Eugene Brieux or Henry Bordeaux. If he does not care for “Anna Karenina,” “War and Peace,” “Sebastopol,” and “The Cossacks” he misses much; but if he cares for the “Kreutzer Sonata” he had better make up his mind that for pathological reasons he will be wise thereafter to avoid Tolstoy entirely. Tolstoy is an interesting and stimulating writer, but an exceedingly unsafe moral adviser.
It is clear that the reading of vicious books for pleasure should be eliminated. It is no less clear that trivial and vulgar books do more damage than can possibly be offset by any entertainment they yield. There remain enormous masses of books, of which no one man can read more than a limited number, and among which each reader should choose those which meet his own particular needs. There is no such thing as a list of “the hundred best books,” or the “best five-foot library.”
Dozens of series of excellent books, one hundred to each series, can be named, all of reasonably equal merit and each better for many readers than any of the others; and probably not more than half a dozen books would appear in all these lists. As for a “five-foot library,” scores can readily be devised, each of which at some given time, for some given man, under certain conditions, will be best. But to attempt to create such a library that shall be of universal value is foreordained to futility.
Within broad limits, therefore, the reader’s personal and individual taste must be the guiding factor. I like hunting books and books of exploration and adventure. I do not ask any one else to like them. I distinctly do not hold my own preferences as anything whatever but individual preferences; and this chapter is to be accepted as confessional rather than didactic. With this understanding I admit a liking for novels where something happens; and even among these novels I can neither explain nor justify why I like some and do not like others; why, among the novels of Sienkiewicz, I cannot stand “Quo Vadis,” and never tire of “With Fire and Sword,” “Pan Michael,” the “Deluge” and the “Knights of the Cross.”
Of course, I know that the best critics scorn the demand among novel readers for “the happy ending.” Now, in really great books—in an epic like Milton’s, in dramas like those of Æschylus and Sophocles—I am entirely willing to accept and even demand tragedy, and also in some poetry that cannot be called great, but not in good, readable novels, of sufficient length to enable me to get interested in the hero and heroine!
There is enough of horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple; and when I turn to the world of literature—of books considered as books, and not as instruments of my profession—I do not care to study suffering unless for some sufficient purpose. It is only a very exceptional novel which I will read if He does not marry Her; and even in exceptional novels I much prefer this consummation. I am not defending my attitude. I am merely stating it.
Therefore it would be quite useless for me to try to explain why I read certain books. As to how and when, my answers must be only less vague. I almost always read a good deal in the evening; and if the rest of the evening is occupied I can at least get half an hour before going to bed. But all kinds of odd moments turn up during even a busy day, in which it is possible to enjoy a book; and then there are rainy afternoons in the country in autumn, and stormy days in winter, when one’s work outdoors is finished and after wet clothes have been changed for dry, the rocking-chair in front of the open wood-fire simply demands an accompanying book.
Railway and steamboat journeys were, of course, predestined through the ages as aids to the enjoyment of reading. I have always taken books with me when on hunting and exploring trips. In such cases the literature should be reasonably heavy, in order that it may last. You can under these conditions read Herbert Spencer, for example, or the writings of Turgot, or a German study of the Mongols, or even a German edition of Aristophanes, with erudite explanations of the jokes, as you never would if surrounded by less formidable authors in your own library; and when you do reach the journey’s end you grasp with eager appetite at old magazines, or at the lightest of literature.
Then, if one is worried by all kinds of men and events—during critical periods in administrative office, or at national conventions, or during congressional investigations, or in hard-fought political campaigns—it is the greatest relief and unalloyed delight to take up some really good, some really enthralling book—Tacitus, Thucydides, Herodotus, Polybius, or Goethe, Keats, Gray, or Lowell—and lose all memory of everything grimy, and of the baseness that must be parried or conquered.
Like every one else, I am apt to read in streaks. If I get interested in any subject I read different books connected with it, and probably also read books on subjects suggested by it. Having read Carlyle’s “Frederick the Great”—with its splendid description of the battles, and of the unyielding courage and thrifty resourcefulness of the iron-tempered King; and with its screaming deification of able brutality in the name of morality, and its practise of the suppression and falsification of the truth under the pretense of preaching veracity—I turned to Macaulay’s essay on this subject, and found that the historian whom it has been the fashion of the intellectuals to patronize or deride showed a much sounder philosophy and an infinitely greater appreciation of and devotion to truth than was shown by the loquacious apostle of the doctrine of reticence.
Then I took up Waddington’s “Guerre de Sept Ans”; then I read all I could about Gustavus Adolphus; and, gradually dropping everything but the military side, I got hold of quaint little old histories of Eugene of Savoy and Turenne. In similar fashion my study of and delight in Mahan sent me further afield, to read queer old volumes about De Ruyter and the daring warrior-merchants of the Hansa, and to study, as well as I could, the feats of Suffren and Tegethoff. I did not need to study Farragut.
Mahaffy’s books started me to reread—in translation, alas!—the post-Athenian Greek authors. After Ferrero I did the same thing as regards the Latin authors, and then industriously read all kinds of modern writers on the same period, finishing with Oman’s capital essay on “Seven Roman Statesmen.” Gilbert Murray brought me back from Greek history to Greek literature, and thence by a natural suggestion to parts of the Old Testament, to the Nibelungenlied, to the Roland lay and the chansons de gestes, to Beowulf, and finally to the great Japanese hero-tale, the story of the Forty-Nine Ronins.
I read Burroughs too often to have him suggest anything save himself; but I am exceedingly glad that Charles Sheldon has arisen to show what a hunter-naturalist, who adds the ability of the writer to the ability of the trained observer and outdoor adventurer, can do for our last great wilderness, Alaska. From Sheldon I turned to Stewart Edward White, and then began to wander afar, with Herbert Ward’s “Voice from the Congo,” and Mary Kingsley’s writings, and Hudson’s “El Ombu,” and Cunningham Grahame’s sketches of South America. A re-reading of The Federalist led me to Burke, to Trevelyan’s history of Fox and of our own Revolution, to Lecky; and finally by way of Malthus and Adam Smith and Lord Acton and Bagehot to my own contemporaries, to Ross and George Alger.
Even in pure literature, having nothing to do with history, philosophy, sociology, or economy, one book will often suggest another, so that one finds one has unconsciously followed a regular course of reading. Once I travelled steadily from Montaigne through Addison, Swift, Steele, Lamb, Irving, and Lowell to Crothers and Kenneth Grahame—and if it be objected that some of these could not have suggested the others I can only answer that they did suggest them.
I suppose that every one passes through periods during which he reads no poetry; and some people, of whom I am one, also pass through periods during which they voraciously devour poets of widely different kinds. Now it will be Horace and Pope; now Schiller, Scott, Longfellow, Körner; now Bret Harte or Kipling; now Shelley or Herrick or Tennyson; now Poe and Coleridge; and again Emerson or Browning or Whitman. Sometimes one wishes to read for the sake of contrast. To me Owen Wister is the writer I wish when I am hungry with the memories of lonely mountains, of vast sunny plains with seas of wind-rippled grass, of springing wild creatures, and lithe, sun-tanned men who ride with utter ease on ungroomed, half-broken horses. But when I lived much in cow camps I often carried a volume of Swinburne, as a kind of antiseptic to alkali dust, tepid, muddy water, frying-pan bread, sow-belly bacon, and the too-infrequent washing of sweat-drenched clothing.
Fathers and mothers who are wise can train their children first to practise, and soon to like, the sustained mental application necessary to enjoy good books. They will do well also to give each boy or girl the mastery of at least some one foreign language, so that at least one other great literature, in addition to our own noble English literature, shall be open to him or her. Modern languages are taught so easily and readily that whoever really desires to learn one of them can soon achieve sufficient command of it to read ordinary books with reasonable ease; and then it is a mere matter of practise for any one to become able thoroughly to enjoy the beauty and wisdom which knowledge of the new tongue brings.
Now and then one’s soul thirsts for laughter. I cannot imagine any one’s taking a course in humorous writers, but just as little can I sympathize with the man who does not enjoy them at times—from Sydney Smith to John Phoenix and Artemus Ward, and from these to Stephen Leacock. Mark Twain at his best stands a little apart, almost as much so as Joel Chandler Harris. Oliver Wendell Holmes, of course, is the laughing philosopher, the humorist at his very highest, even if we use the word “humor” only in its most modern and narrow sense.
A man with a real fondness for books of various kinds will find that his varying moods determine which of these books he at the moment needs. On the afternoon when Stevenson represents the luxury of enjoyment it may safely be assumed that Gibbon will not. The mood that is met by Napier’s “Peninsular War,” or Marbot’s memoirs, will certainly not be met by Hawthorne or Jane Austen. Parkman’s “Montcalm and Wolfe,” Motley’s histories of the Dutch Republic, will hardly fill the soul on a day when one turns naturally to the “Heimskringla”; and there is a sense of disconnection if after the “Heimskringla” one takes up the “Oxford Book of French Verse.”
Another matter which within certain rather wide limits each reader must settle for himself is the dividing line between (1) not knowing anything about current books, and (2) swamping one’s soul in the sea of vapidity which overwhelms him who reads only “the last new books.” To me the heading employed by some reviewers when they speak of “books of the week” comprehensively damns both the books themselves and the reviewer who is willing to notice them. I would much rather see the heading “books of the year before last.” A book of the year before last which is still worth noticing would probably be worth reading; but one only entitled to be called a book of the week had better be tossed into the wastebasket at once. Still, there are plenty of new books which are not of permanent value but which nevertheless are worth more or less careful reading; partly because it is well to know something of what especially interests the mass of our fellows, and partly because these books, although of ephemeral worth, may really set forth something genuine in a fashion which for the moment stirs the hearts of all of us.
Books of more permanent value may, because of the very fact that they possess literary interest, also yield consolation of a non-literary kind. If any executive grows exasperated over the shortcomings of the legislative body with which he deals, let him study Macaulay’s account of the way William was treated by his parliaments as soon as the latter found that, thanks to his efforts, they were no longer in immediate danger from foreign foes; it is illuminating. If any man feels too gloomy about the degeneracy of our people from the standards of their forefathers, let him read “Martin Chuzzlewit”; it will be consoling.
If the attitude of this nation toward foreign affairs and military preparedness at the present day seems disheartening, a study of the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century will at any rate give us whatever comfort we can extract from the fact that our great-grandfathers were no less foolish than we are.
Nor need any one confine himself solely to the affairs of the United States. If he becomes tempted to idealize the past, if sentimentalists seek to persuade him that the “ages of faith,” the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, for instance, were better than our own, let him read any trustworthy book on the subject—Lea’s “History of the Inquisition,” for instance, or Coulton’s abridgment of Salimbene’s memoirs. He will be undeceived and will be devoutly thankful that his lot has been cast in the present age, in spite of all its faults.
It would be hopeless to try to enumerate all the books I read, or even all the kinds. The foregoing is a very imperfect answer to a question which admits of only such an answer.