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Reading old books

15 June 2019

A couple of years ago there was a reading challenge: Read a book published before you were born this year – Modern Mrs. Darcy.

I also read somewhere about the same time that reading books published before you were born makes you a better writer, because it gives you an understanding of other times and places, a wider sympathy, and it can deliver us from temporal chauvinism.

So I thought I would try to make a list of books I had read that were published before I was born. Some were published only a year or two before, others were published a century or more before, but they were all published before.

Of course the list is not complete. I can’t remember every book I have ever read. I do remember some of the first books I read, before the age of 7: Choo Choo, the little engine that ran away, Buzzy Wing (about bees) and Hush Wing (about owls). But they may have been brand new when I got them, and so may not have been published before I was born. I recorded some in my diary, and remember reading others, and more recently I’ve tried recording books I have read when I read them (GoodReads also helps with that).

So here is my list as it stands now:

  1. Allcott, Louisa May 1869. Good Wives.
  2. Allen, Roland 1962 [1912]. Missionary methods: St Paul’s or ours,
  3. Austen, Jane 1950 [1816]. Emma.
  4. Austen, Jane Pride and prejudice.
  5. Austen, Jane s.a. Northanger Abbey.
  6. Ballantyne, R.M. 1966 [1857]. The Coral Island.
  7. Belloc, Hillaire 1939. Survivals and new arrivals.
  8. Blackmore, R.D. s.a.. Lorna Doone.
  9. Bront‰, Emily 1847. Wuthering Heights.
  10. Buchan, John 1928. Prester John.
  11. Buchan, John 1947 [1940]. Memory hold-the-door.
  12. Buchan, John 1952. Greenmantle.
  13. Burnett, Frances Hodgson 1977. The secret garden.
  14. Carroll, Lewis 1965. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
  15. Conrad, Joseph 1955 [1904]. Nostromo.
  16. Conrad, Joseph 1960. The nigger of the Narcissus Typhoon The shadow line.
  17. Conrad, Joseph s.a.. The secret agent.
  18. Conrad, Joseph 1964. Under Western eyes.
  19. Conrad, Joseph 2010. Heart of darkness.
  20. Dickens, Charles 1981. Bleak House.
  21. Dickens, Charles s.a.. David Copperfield.
  22. Dickens, Charles S.A.. Dealings with the firm of Dombey & Son: wholesale, retail and for exportation.
  23. Dickens, Charles 1962. A tale of two cities.
  24. Dickens, Charles 2010. Oliver Twist.
  25. Dickens, Charles s.a.. The life and adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.
  26. Dostoevsky, Fyodor 2009. Devils.
  27. Dostoevsky, Fyodor 1959. The brothers Karamazov.
  28. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor 2003 [1864]. Notes from underground The double.
  29. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor 2005. Crime and punishment.
  30. Durham, M. Edith 1909. High Albania.
  31. Eliot, George s.a.. Adam Bede.
  32. Farmer, Edwin 1900. The Transvaal as a mission field.
  33. Greene, Graham 1962 [1940]. The power and the glory.
  34. Greene, Graham 1974 [1936]. A gun for sale.
  35. Haggard, H. Rider 1887. Allan Quartermain.
  36. Haggard, H. Rider 1965 [1910]. Queen Sheba’s ring.
  37. Haggard, H. Rider 1979. King Solomon’s mines.
  38. Haggard, H. Rider 1965 [1887]. Allan Quatermain.
  39. Hesse, Hermann 1974 [1927]. Steppenwolf.
  40. Huxley, Aldous 1932. Antic hay.
  41. Huxley, Aldous 1949 [1921]. Crome yellow.
  42. Huxley, Aldous 1994 [1932]. Brave new world.
  43. Johns, W.E. 1939. Biggles flies South.
  44. Johns, W.E. 1939. Biggles in Spain.
  45. Johns, W.E. 1940. Biggles in the Baltic.
  46. Kafka, Franz 1965 [1925]. The trial.
  47. Kingsley, Henry 1909. Ravenshoe.
  48. Koestler, Arthur 1965 [1940]. Darkness at noon.
  49. MacDonald, George 1964 [1872]. The princess and the goblin.
  50. Maugham, W. Somerset 1967 [1897]. Liza of Lambeth.
  51. Maugham, W. Somerset 1970 [1930]. Cakes and ale.
  52. Miller, Henry 1993 [1934]. Tropic of Cancer.
  53. Montgomery, L.M. 1994 [1908]. Anne of Green Gables.
  54. Nesbit, E. 1978. Five children and It.
  55. Nesbit, E. 1978. The Phoenix and the Carpet.
  56. Nesbit, E. 1986 [1899]. The story of the treasure seekers.
  57. Pepys, Samuel 1997. The concise Pepys.
  58. Reed, Douglas 1939. Insanity fair.
  59. Sayers, Dorothy 1970 [1931]. The Five Red Herrings.
  60. Sayers, Dorothy L. 1968 [1937]. Busman’s honeymoon.
  61. Sayers, Dorothy L. 1972 [1935]. Gaudy Night.
  62. Sayers, Dorothy 1986. Have his carcase.
  63. Sayers, Dorothy L 1934. The nine tailors.
  64. Sewell, Anna 1945. Black Beauty: the autobiography of a horse.
  65. Steavenson, W.H 1933. Suns and worlds: an introduction to astronomy.
  66. Steinbeck, John 1967 [1939]. Cannery Row.
  67. Stevenson, Robert Louis 1948. Kidnapped.
  68. Stevenson, Robert Louis 1947. Treasure Island.
  69. Swift, Jonathan . Gulliver’s Travels
  70. Vale, Edmund 1937. North Country.
  71. Waugh, Evelyn 1955 [1930]. Vile Bodies.
  72. Waugh, Evelyn 1938. Scoop.
  73. Williams, Charles 1931. Many dimensions.
  74. Williams, Charles 1955 [1937]. Descent into Hell.
  75. Williams, Charles 1957 [1930]. War in heaven.
  76. Williams, Charles 1965 [1931]. The place of the lion.
  77. Williams, Charles 1965 [1933]. Shadows of ecstasy.
  78. Wolfe, E.M 1935. Beyond the thirst belt.
  79. Woolf, Virginia 1992 [1931]. The waves.
  80. Woolf, Virginia 2004 [1925]. Mrs Dalloway.

I read many more Biggles books, but could not remember all the titles, nor when they were published, though I read most of them between the ages of 10 and 12. But it was from Biggles in Spain that I first learned about the Spanish Civil War, and from Biggles flies South that I first learned of an ancient Persian army that got lost in the Egyptian desert. So even from fiction one can learn some interesting things about history.

There are still many books missing from the list, since when I read them I recorded the date of the edition I read rather than the date of original publication, but I think the main point of the linked article remains — every year one should try to read at least one book that was first published before one was born. I would go further, and say one should try to read two such books each year, at least one of which should have been published 70 or more years before one was born.

And it is because of that that I chose to illustrate this post with the cover of The Annotated Alice. That was published before any of my grandparents had been born, so it was a different world, and the annotated edition explains many of the things that contemporary readers would have taken for granted, but which mean nothing to us.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 June 2019 1:06 pm

    Lots of good choices. My favorite on the list is Lorna Doone. I read it twice, and we went to Exmoor when we visited England. It is a great place.

  2. Irulan permalink
    18 June 2019 9:38 am

    no Moby Dick?

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