Review: Alex Johnson, A Book of Book Lists

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into a range of fascinating literary lists courtesy of Alex Johnson’s new book

There is something comforting in a list. The human mind craves order amidst chaos: the inventor of the modern thesaurus (and the one who first gave a book of synonyms that name), Peter Mark Roget, began to compile the book that is now synonymous with his name as a way of coping with depression and personal tragedy. Lists can also offer guidance, of course. It was John Aikin who said, ‘To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor’s prohibited list.’ And book lists can be of great service to the bibliophile.

I’m not talking so much about chart lists such as the New York Times Bestseller List or the Amazon charts, but something more timeless and enduring. Which is why Alex Johnson’s A Book of Book Lists: A Bibliophile’s Compendium (British Library) makes for such informative and enjoyable reading. As he announces in his brief introduction, A Book of Book Lists is not a ‘1,001 Books You MUST Read Before You’re 40’ kind of book. Instead, Alex Johnson is drawn to ‘lists that tell stories’. He goes on to quote Walter Mosley’s remark that a person’s bookcase tells you everything you need to know about them. Our books reveal our personalities and tastes, what we do with our leisure time, even what our hobbies and interests might be (besides reading, of course).

In a series of lists and accompanying essays, Alex Johnson offers us an insight into some of the bookshelves of the great and good. We learn that Charles Darwin tried reading Dryden and Pope’s poetry but gave up after skimming them, noting to himself ‘need not try them again’; that the top ten most-picked books by castaway guests on Desert Island Discs include Dante’s Divine Comedy and, a touch more surprisingly, Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples; and that Dickens’s fake books at Tavistock House in London included such titles as Growler’s Gruffiology, with Appendix and Jonah’s Account of the Whale.

There are also some fascinating history lessons along the way. Who has now heard of Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913)? He was the MP who introduced the Bank Holidays Act in 1871, and, as Principal of the Working Men’s College in London, he also offered a list of 100 books which he considered ‘best worth reading’, aimed particularly at an increasingly literate population (made possible by educational reform in Britain that began in earnest in 1870). This was in 1886, and Lubbock excluded living authors, so the most recent authors are Victorians like Dickens, George Eliot, and Charles Kingsley.

Equally interesting is Johnson’s account of the books burned by the Nazis – an estimated 4,000, in all, between 1933 and 1945. Some of these are reasonably well-known: the works of Sigmund Freud (and anything else that touched upon sex and sexuality), All Quiet on the Western Front, and the works of Bertolt Brecht. But the Third Reich also consigned to the flames the novels of the US writer John Dos Passos, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and the works of Jack London (who had been hugely popular in Germany before the rise of Hitler). Johnson cites Matthew Fishburn’s book on bibliocausts, Burning Books, which reveals that having your books burnt was ‘a confirmation of a writer’s importance and credentials’. Oscar Maria Graf, for instance, was annoyed that his books were left off the Nazis’ banned books list, and demanded that they ‘burn me!’

A Book of Book Lists is the perfect ‘dipping’ book for the book-lover, and it’s not just a dry series of lists with barely any gloss or further information. Alex Johnson’s descriptions of the book lists, his review of their contents and what they signify, also make for edifying reading. One of the most interesting entries, I found, was the section on lost books, which includes the collected plays of Agathon, the ancient Greek playwright mentioned in Plato’s Symposium, as well as Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross and Byron’s memoirs. It was also nice to have a (virtual) glance at the books owned by Richard III, which included Tristan and Isolde, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and the intriguingly titled The Prophecy of the Eagle, and its Commentary. He also possessed some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and poetry by John Lydgate, as well as Ipomedon, a 12th-century romance ‘in which an undercover knight undertakes various quests, and battles three monsters before winning the hand of a princess’. Richard’s own life fell somewhat short of such fantasy.

One test of a good ‘book about books’, for me, is whether you feel your appetite whetted for more reading. And Alex Johnson’s A Book of Book Lists: A Bibliophile’s Compendium certainly made me hungry to devour more of my bookshelves, as well as the shelves of the great and good. Ipomedon is one such example: it was unfamiliar to me before, but now I want to go in search of an English translation. Johnson’s book is bound to inspire readers to get writing a few lists of their own: wish lists for new books to go in search of. And who can ever have enough books? As Terry Pratchett once said: ‘If you have enough book space, I don’t want to talk to you.’

Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.

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