on 1 February 2010
In the second half of my life, it is alarming to think that there is so much I still have to read and want to read - and, apparently, so little time!
So many famous authors, the works of whom I have never read and, about whom, I know little or nothing. So, this book is an ideal short cut - how I wish I had had the opportunity to read it so much earlier in my life.
The title of the book would be more honest were it to have the sub-title "in English" stated clearly, although the back cover does state this. The result is that there is no example of that first and great master essayist, Montaigne, or his antecedent, Plutarch. The editor mentions both in his introduction and it would have been instructive to have included, at least, an example of the best of each, by way of comparison.
The marketing blurb on the back cover claims that there are over 150 essays, so it would have been good to find an essay on "Numeracy", or on "The modern tendency to over-state things" in the collection; for there are 'only' 142 essays from some 120 different authors. However, the first essay is Bacon's "Of Truth"!
The collection is in chronological order, the key date being the year of birth of the author. It begins with five essays by Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and no other writer has as many; the last is by Clive James (1939-). Fewer than ten of the essays are extracts from larger works.
You will find here the writings of Dryden, Swift, Addison, of Sir Richard Steele, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson, of David Hume, Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, and of Thomas de Quincey, Carlyle, Macauley and Newman and of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Stuart Mill, as well as Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Huxley, Bagehot and Mark Twain - and that's just the names I knew. Ambrose Bierce, Alice Meynell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad are here, and so are Hilaire Belloc, Bertrand Russell and Sir Max Beerbohm and Churchill, Chesterton, Forster, Strachey and Mencken and Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence, J B S Haldane, Aldous Huxley, James Thurber, J B Priestley, Robert Graves and V S Pritchett, along with Orwell, Waugh, Greene, Betjeman, Berlin, Trevor-Roper, Vidal, Naipaul and Updike.
Subjects are so varied that there is surely something for everyone: a new look at something familiar, a view of something arcane, a treatment of something that one would normally ignore and, perhaps, a matter one has never even come across before.
I always want to follow in the footsteps of Jan Morris, and the essay "La Paz" (1963) has the same effect - travel writing at its best. Each essay is dated and Oliver Goldsmith's "On Dress" (1759) seems right for today when one reads, in the news, that Tesco is asking the shoppers of Cardiff not to do so in their pyjamas!
How can one resist Swift's "A Meditation Upon a Broom-Stick" (1701), William Hazlitt's "On the Pleasure of Hating" (1826) or any of these three of my pet hates: "Getting Up on Cold Mornings" (Leigh Hunt, 1820), "Wasps" (W H Hudson, 1905) and "The Death of the Moth" (Virginia Woolf, 1942)?
Other subjects of the essays include avarice, national prejudices, war and invective; there are those about people, such as Sir George Grove, Walt Whitman, Gandhi and Victor Hugo, about religion ("The Philosophy of Christianity", "Thoughts of God" and "The Faces of Buddha") and on subjects as varied as "The Homburg Hat" (Richard Cobb, 1985) and on that person who is so elusive in modern-day London, "The Plumber" (Trollope, 1880).
680 pages of great writing - and superb value. And don't leave it on your bookshelf gathering dust - pass it on to a friend!