[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
An Australian movie called The Castle told the story of a man defending his home – that was his castle. The movie had its own fingerprints of authenticity. For example, the hero, Daryl, loved to ask what price someone was asking for second-hand goods, and when told, he would say, ‘Tell ‘im ‘e’s dreamin.’’ Or, if someone gave Daryl something special, he would say, and with proper reverence, ‘This is goin’ straight to the pool room’. Toffs do not play pool – it is not on the curriculum at Eton.
My top shelf is like Daryl’s pool room. It is where I can enjoy the company of books that matter to me, and I can show them off. I used to collect do-dads on my travels for the mantel-piece over the fire. Then I thought I might collect books of the writers that have been good for me. Accordingly, I put up a new shelf for the do-dads, and started to arrange a collection of my favourite books for the second top shelf. When the little collection of favourites expanded in a new home, I put two shelves up around the fire-place for my top books.
There are two criteria of selection for the top shelf: I have read and enjoyed the book at least once: and the book or its author has enhanced my prospects of dying happy in my own skin. I have read all the novels at least twice, the bigger of them, and the histories, more often (Carlyle six times). Each book or author has been a sustaining source of comfort to me.
All the volumes selected for this shelf are at least part bound in leather or are slip-cased. Many have been acquired or rebound for this purpose, leaving other editions elsewhere. Some have been chosen for the shelf to represent the writer in a slimmer form – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall would take up a quarter of the shelf. This is so for Bloch, Euripides, Gibbon, Keats, Maitland and Shakespeare. The order of the books on the shelf is set by the array of shapes and colours that pleases my eye and that adds to the life of the room. The idea is to have these books and writers there as companions close at hand – like the pictures on the walls and the music on the shelves.
For those arithmetically inclined, a rough classification of the 50 books might be as follows: novels, 13; history, 9; poetry, 8; drama, 3; philosophy, 4; music, 3, sport, 2, statesmen, 2; economics, 1; art 1, movies 1, science, 1, cooking 1, and religion, 1. Thirty three of the books are at least partly bound in leather, and seventeen are in slip cases.
The novels, plays and poems speak for themselves. With the thinkers, I am at least as much interested in the thinker as the thinking. Each of the three philosophers here left us at peace with themselves and the world, and that fact says as much to me as all that they said. I read the histories for literature, and not so much to see whether lesser writers might sanction these historians’ view of the evidence – I believe that light can be imparted by good writing, as it may be by good painting or by good music. That at any rate was the premise of people like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Goethe. I believe that drama throws more light on the human condition than any other art form or any purely intellectual argument.
This is not a learned or scholarly book. There are no notes or references. I have written about most of these subjects before. Now, I am just saying why these books are on this shelf and in my life in the hope that others may take some comfort from them. Even Don Giovanni knew that he should not keep it all to himself.
Science got beyond us amateurs with Einstein, and philosophy has not mattered since well before then. (They like throwing stones at priests but what have they got to show for themselves?) The only book on the shelf that is above the pay level of the average reader – including me – is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and that book is beyond most philosophy under-graduates. Unless you are interested in fly fishing or golf, or opera, the most accessible books are Billy Budd and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but the only difference between them and War and Peace and Ulysses is that the latter are much longer and have long been doomed to fearful ‘greatness’ by the literati in command of the intellectual heights, even though two of our greatest novels are two of our funniest.
For each book, you will have the date of first publication, the details of the publication referred to here, and a description of the binding. The citation in bold at the beginning of each chapter is from the author but not necessarily from the book on the shelf.
For the removal of doubt, I am not suggesting that my taste might reflect some universal or Platonic form of what is best in the literature of the West. It is not a Top Forty. There is no such thing. My criteria will show why I am not interested in taking part in the parlour game of talking about what’s in and what’s out. If one had been written, a history of the Melbourne Storm would be up there between Gibbon and Macaulay, and gorgeously apparelled in leather of an imperial or Mount Langi Ghiran purple. This book is a record of personal infatuation, not a dictated or insincere tableau of correct books to inform wannabe proper minds.
Some of you may be interested to see how accessible these writers can be when we have brushed aside the ghosts of the past, or some dreary intellectual establishment of the present, and also by how we may be enriched by the story of the lives of some of the people who are up there. As often as not, I am at least as interested in the author as in the book. You will get good writing and thinking, and you will also be exposed to raw moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual courage from some of our real heroes. I do not believe in saints but if I did, Spinoza, Lincoln, and Bonhoeffer would be jointly on pole, with Kant, Darwin, Maitland, Bloch, and Keynes, not far behind. The following pages tell why.