27 January

Among the "great books" list-makers, Frederick W Farrar first used the term as his title: as Carnochan's article notes, 'Great Books' was a series of articles for the Sunday Magazine. The book version of those articles thankfully was reissued in 1972, so not only does my local university library have a copy, but it's in pristine condition. What's most revealing--and amusing--about Farrar's list is that it's not much of a list at all: three authors and two works. Lubbock's list of 100 entries, at least as Carnochan sees it, started the tradition of longish lists of the world's greatest works of literature, especially because of the numerous responding lists that followed the publication of the first version of Lubbock's in the Pall Mall Gazette. However, besides Charles W Eliot's Harvard Classics series, the early Twentieth Century does not seem to have left behind lists that are still read today. Apparently one would need to do extensive research to find them. As we'll see, "great books" lists did not become common--or, rather, reach a point where readers had an excessive number to choose from--until the 1980's. Here's Farrar's list, such as it is. It is included here because of its significance in the development of the "great books" concept; for the time being, it does not count toward the final master list because it does not extend back to ancient times.

John Bunyan


 [discussing the Divine Comedy only]


The Imitation of Christ

Farrar's essays prove to be of interest to contemporary readers almost immediately. The second paragraph of the introductory piece states: "The multiplication of books in these days is almost beyond calculation. [...] The output of fiction is so astonishingly large that we cannot but wonder who are the readers of the numberless ephemeral volumes that appear and 'perish like the summer fly'. [...] There are thousands of other books which, though they are useful and profitable for a time, and accomplish their intended purpose, are then naturally superseded. For such literary productions their authors never expected more than a brief existence. Yet they have not been published to no purpose. They fall like the dead leaves of autumn; but just as the dead leaves have not lived in vain, since they serve to enrich the soil into which they perish, so the thoughts of myriads of men, though they possess no germ of immortality, do in their limited degree furnish a contribution, however infinitesimal, to the intellectual life of each successive generation." One-hundred-fifteen years later, this passage still rings true.