Literary Taste (how to form it) by Arnold Bennett

I love that this sort of book was once published – and not only published but, as my copy suggests, owned by the 23rd Hartlepools Troop of Scouts. I do hope they enjoyed it. Who knows what journey it then went on before I picked it up in Edinburgh?

Literary Taste

Literary Taste: how to form it was published in 1909, though there was later a revised edition by Frank Swinnerton in the 1930s, according to Wikipedia. My copy is undated but is evidently from around 1909 – because it doesn’t have the extra section Swinnerton added (more on that later), and, well, because the book is obviously from that period. One of my specialist talents now is being able to date an early 20th-century hardback to within a few years. It doesn’t come in handy all that often.

Bennett had only been publishing novels for about a decade when this book came out, but they included big-hitters and his name was already at the forefront of literary reputation – though it would take a tumble later, when he became more or less synonymous with the stale Edwardians (thanks partly to Virginia Woolf’s influential essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’). I’ve yet to read any of his fiction, though my book group is doing The Old Wive’s Tale next month, but I’ve read quite a bit of his reviewing and journalism. He’s certainly got a passion for books, and the sort of determined I’m-just-like-you persona that is rivalled only by Jennifer Lawrence.

This book is addressed to the person who enjoys reading and wants to be well-read, but doesn’t quite know where to start. Bennett is almost absurdly precise in where you should start (it is, apparently, the essays of Charles Lamb), but before this he says things about literature that echo down the decades to get a rousing ‘amen!’ from all of us.

Literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. I am extremely anxious to avoid rhetorical exaggerations. I do not think I am guilty of one in asserting that he who has not been ‘presented the freedom’ of literature has not wakened up out of his prenatal sleep. He is merely not born. He can’t see; he can’t hear; he can’t feel, in any full sense. He can only eat his dinner.

Love it.

The aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it i to be alive, to intensify one’s capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours. It is to change utterly one’s relations with the world.

Preach, Bennett!

Well, having said that, I think it can also just be to amuse the hours of leisure. I don’t think Bennett would think much of me, literature-wise. For one thing, he’s no big fan of the academic study of literature. For another, he’s not very impressed by people who don’t start with 16th-century literature – and, I’ll be honest, it’s been quite a while since I grabbed a copy of anything from before the first world war. Well, except Literary Taste, of course.

Bennett writes very interestingly about why a classic is a classic, who decides it, and how choices in reading can make or break one’s literary education. All of it feels fresh today, and are debates that still rage. But Bennett isn’t just talking hypotheticals: he wants to get down to brass tacks about actual books to read. Not only Charles Lamb (though emphatically him) – Bennett compiles a list of essential books, and prices them out as well. It’s nice that he is aware of financial limitations, and deliberately omits some authors whose works are not available in good, reasonable editions in 1909. It’s also so unexpected to see these sorts of balance sheets in a popular literary text.

This was apparently pretty influential. Wikipedia has kindly put them all in a list, which you can examine closely; it also includes books from the post-1909 period of literature that Swinnerton added in his 1937 revision. I am more comfortable ground in this years, of course, and it’s nice to see people like A.A. Milne included – and unexpected to see Stella Benson’s The Little World, which I haven’t heard of despite being (I suspect) one of relatively few people today to have read more than one book by Stella Benson. And there’s a Compton Mackenzie recommendation to follow up after my recent review of Poor Relations.

I’ll admit, Bennett’s choices leave me feeling like I have very little literary taste – and also wondering how he’d time to read all these authors and books by the time he was 42. As he concludes the list (which includes brilliantly sassy moments like ‘Names such as those of Charlotte Yonge and Dinah Craik are omitted intentionally’):

When you have read, wholly or in part, a majority of these three hundred and thirty-five volumes, with enjoyment, you may begin to whisper to yourself that your literary taste is formed; and you may pronounce judgment on modern works which come before the bar of your opinion in the calm assurance that, though to err is human, you do at any rate know what you are talking about.

Well, not yet, Arnold. And probably never. Somehow I find it more fascinating to read books from 1909 about how people formed literary taste – and this was certainly a great, interesting, unusual read.

21 thoughts on “Literary Taste (how to form it) by Arnold Bennett

  • July 4, 2016 at 7:34 am
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    Wow! Yes, quite the walking encyclopedia! But do you feel he is ever a tad too ‘fixed’ in his mindset? He seems to have no doubts about his ability to pronounce judgement…

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:16 pm
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      He certainly seemed to have no doubts in his mind! Though quite what he likes about each text seems to be up for grabs.

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  • July 4, 2016 at 9:18 am
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    Oh, it’s available on Gutenberg.org – will have a look at it later. Some of the non-fiction choices seem a bit odd with todays eyes :-)

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:17 pm
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      Oh excellent! Enjoy :)

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  • July 4, 2016 at 10:39 am
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    Love it! I must download this from Gutenberg, we do love books about books around here, don’t we!

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:17 pm
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      Oh that we certainly do – I don’t think I’ll ever tire of them.

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  • July 4, 2016 at 1:37 pm
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    Great post, thank you. As one of the small but growing group of Stella Benson fans, it was good to see her mentioned here.

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:18 pm
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      I remember your paper on her! Have you read this one?

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  • July 4, 2016 at 1:42 pm
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    It seems a bit like Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan, which I adore.

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:18 pm
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      Ooo, I’ve only books by his daughter, but will definitely seek that one out.

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  • July 4, 2016 at 2:55 pm
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    Wonderful list (thank you for the link); loved to see The Compleat Angler on it ! If Bennett was alive you would have a serious contender on the blogosphere !

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:19 pm
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      Oh he would be a ferociously intelligent blogger! Maybe a bit rarefied for me.

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  • July 4, 2016 at 3:53 pm
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    I’ve heard about this before (there’s a whole website devoted to it I follow, but I can’t remember the title). It *does* sound fascinating, but as Marina Sofia says, you do wonder if he was perhaps a tiny weeny bit rigid… :)

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:22 pm
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      Oh that website does ring a bell… I wish them well with this list but I can’t imagine it’s much fun. Certainly not the version that ends in the 19th century! I’d be quite up for sampling the 20th century list though.

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  • July 4, 2016 at 6:40 pm
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    I’m exhausted at the thought of getting through this list, but loved seeing it. Perhaps I’ll begin at the end and work backwards. At my age I’ll be spared several centuries :)) But first I’ll find the book itself, and the Stella Benson. You know where my tastes lie!

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:22 pm
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      I certainly think you’ll enjoy the book, Sarah, even if (like me) it doesn’t leave you with any particular desire to acquire Bennett’s taste!

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  • July 5, 2016 at 12:45 pm
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    Love this Blog! Arnold Bennett well worth reading. Am in middle of First Impressions of America, written in 1911 but pub. 1912, a few months before Titanic. I had to turn back to check dates when in the middle of a paean to the Lusitania ( ship he used to get to NY.) Lovely writing and of course interesting views and opinions . He feels instantly more at home in Chicago because they burn more soft coal like the Five Towns. Can appreciate the NY Flat Iron building in theory but thinks its so very ugly when you see it! Some chapters such as a visit to a telephone exchange are obv. journalism but can be easily skipped. really good stuff. Am looking forward to my visit visit to the USA in September….
    Helen

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:23 pm
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      Thanks Helen – and great info, thanks!

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  • July 6, 2016 at 5:05 am
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    I think being able to date early 20th century hardcovers is an excellent party trick. Now to figure out a natural way to be able to show it off…that might take more thought. But, rest assured, if you ever come visit I will make sure there is a stack of books without dates and a crowd to marvel at your skill!

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    • July 6, 2016 at 10:24 pm
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      Hahaha! I’ll hold you to that. And I’ll wear a cape.

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  • July 14, 2016 at 11:23 am
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    Such an interesting blog. I admire how you construct your sentences and paragraphs. I’m new at blogging (and writing, I’m not good with word) and I’m looking around for some inspirations. Your might wanna drop by and check out my work at notesfromroam.wordpress.com . Your comment is very much appreciated.😊

    Reply

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