As promised yesterday, here is the essay ‘A Household Book’ from A.A. Milne’s Not That It Matters. It might come with some surprises – unless you happened to read Peter’s comments yesterday…
Once on a time I discovered Samuel Butler; not the other two, but the one who wrote The Way of All Flesh, the second-best novel in the English language. I say the second-best, so that, if you remind me of Tom Jones or The Mayor of Casterbridge or any other that you fancy, I can say that, of course, that one is the best. Well, I discovered him, just as Voltaire discovered Habakkuk, or your little boy discovered Shakespeare the other day, and I committed my discovery to the world in two glowing articles. Not unnaturally the world remained unmoved. It knew all about Samuel Butler.
Last week I discovered a Frenchman, Claude Tillier, who wrote in the early part of last century a book called Mon Oncle Benjamin, which may be freely translated My Uncle Benjamin. (I read it in the translation.) Eager as I am to be lyrical about it, I shall refrain. I think that I am probably safer with Tillier than with Butler, but I dare not risk it. The thought of your scorn at my previous ignorance of the world-famous Tillier, your amused contempt because I have only just succeeded in borrowing the classic upon which you were brought up, this is too much for me. Let us say no more about it. Claude Tillier – who has not heard of Claude Tillier? Mon Oncle Benjamin – who has not read it, in French or (as I did) in American? Let us pass on to another book.
For I am going to speak of another discovery; of a book which should be a classic, but is not; of a book of which nobody has heard unless through me. It was published some twelve years ago, the last-published book of a well-known writer. When I tell you his name you will say, “Oh yes! I love his books!” and you will mention So-and-So, and its equally famous sequel Such-and-Such. But when I ask you if you have read my book, you will profess surprise, and say that you have never heard of it. “Is it as good as So-and-So and Such-and-Such?” you will ask, hardly believing that this could be possible. “Much better,” I shall reply – and there, if these things were arranged properly, would be another ten per cent. in my pocke. But believe me, I shall be quite content with your gratitude.
Well, the writer of the book is Kenneth Grahame. You have hard of him? Good, I thought so. The books you have read are The Golden Age and Dream Days. Am I not right? Thank you. But the book you have not read – my book – is The Wind in the Willows. Am I not right again? Ah, I was afraid so.
The reason why I knew you had not read it is the reason why I call it “my” book. For the last ten or twelve years I have been recommending it. Usually I speak about it at the my first meeting with a stranger. It is my opening remark, just as yours is something futile about the weather. If I don’t get it in at the beginning, I squeeze it in at the end. The stranger has got to have it some time. Should I ever find myself in the dock, and one never knows, my answer to the question whether I had anything to say would be, “Well, my lord, if I might just recommend a book to the jury before leaving.” Mr. Justice Darling would probably pretend that he had read it, but he wouldn’t deceive me.
For one cannot recommend a book to all the hundreds of people whom one has met in ten years without discovering whether it is well known or not. It is the amazing truth that none of those hundreds had heard of The Wind in the Willows until I told them about it. Some of them had never of Kenneth Grahame; well, one did not have to meet them again, and it takes all sorts to make a world. But most of them were in your position – great admirers of the author and his two earlier famous books, but ignorant thereafter. I had their promise before they left me, and waited confidently for their gratitude. No doubt they also spread the good news in their turn, and it is just possible that it reached you in this way, but it was to me, none the less, that your thanks were due. For instance, you may have noticed a couple of casual references to it, as if it were a classic known to all, in a famous novel published last year. It was I who introduced that novelist to it six months before. Indeed, I feel sometimes that it was I who wrote The Wind in the Willows, and recommended it to Kenneth Grahame… but perhaps I am wrong here, for I have not the pleasure of his acquaintance. Nor, as I have already lamented, am I financially interested in its sale, an explanation which suspicious strangers require from me sometimes.
I shall not describe the book, for no description would help it. But I shall just say this; that it is what I call a Household Book. By a Household Book I mean a book which everybody in the household loves and quotes continually ever afterwards; a book which is read aloud to every new guest, and is regarded as the touchstone of his worth. But it is a book which makes you feel that, though everybody in the house loves it, it is only you who really appreciate it as its true value, and that the others are scarcely worthy of it. It is obvious, you persuade yourself, that the author was thinking of you when he wrote it. “I hope this will please Jones,” were his final words, as he laid down his pen.
Well, of course, you will order the book at once. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don’t be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, still less on the genius of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself… You may be worthy; I do not know. But it is you who are on trial.