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: 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.
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.
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.