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    Books Which Have Influenced Me

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    Chapter 9
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    BOOKS WHICH HAVE INFLUENCED ME[1]

    The Editor[2] has somewhat insidiously laid a trap for his
    correspondents, the question put appearing at first so innocent, truly
    cutting so deep. It is not, indeed, until after some reconnaissance
    and review that the writer awakes to find himself engaged upon
    something in the nature of autobiography, or, perhaps worse, upon a
    chapter in the life of that little, beautiful brother whom we once all
    had, and whom we have all lost and mourned, the man we ought to have
    been, the man we hoped to be. But when word has been passed (even to
    an editor), it should, if possible, be kept; and if sometimes I am
    wise and say too little, and sometimes weak and say too much, the
    blame must lie at the door of the person who entrapped me.

    The most influential books,[3] and the truest in their influence, are
    works of fiction. They do not pin the reader to a dogma, which he must
    afterwards discover to be inexact; they do not teach him a lesson,
    which he must afterwards unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they
    clarify the lessons of life; they disengage us from ourselves, they
    constrain us to the acquaintance of others; and they show us the web
    of experience, not as we can see it for ourselves, but with a singular
    change--that monstrous, consuming _ego_ of ours being, for the nonce,
    struck out. To be so, they must be reasonably true to the human
    comedy; and any work that is so serves the turn of instruction. But
    the course of our education is answered best by those poems and
    romances where we breathe a magnanimous atmosphere of thought and meet
    generous and pious characters. Shakespeare has served me best. Few
    living friends have had upon me an influence so strong for good as
    Hamlet or Rosalind. The last character, already well beloved in the
    reading, I had the good fortune to see, I must think, in an
    impressionable hour, played by Mrs. Scott Siddons.[4] Nothing has ever
    more moved, more delighted, more refreshed me; nor has the influence
    quite passed away. Kent's brief speech[5] over the dying Lear had a
    great effect upon my mind, and was the burthen of my reflections for
    long, so profoundly, so touchingly generous did it appear in sense, so
    overpowering in expression. Perhaps my dearest and best friend outside
    of Shakespeare is D'Artagnan--the elderly D'Artagnan of the _Vicomte
    de Bragelonne_.[6] I know not a more human soul, nor, in his way, a
    finer; I shall be very sorry for the man who is so much of a pedant in
    morals that he cannot learn from the Captain of Musketeers. Lastly, I
    must name the _Pilgrim's Progress_,[7] a book that breathes of every
    beautiful and valuable emotion.

    But of works of art little can be said; their influence is profound
    and silent, like the influence of nature; they mould by contact; we
    drink them up like water, and are bettered, yet know not how. It is in
    books more specifically didactic that we can follow out the effect,
    and distinguish and weigh and compare. A book which has been very
    influential upon me fell early into my hands, and so may stand first,
    though I think its influence was only sensible later on, and perhaps
    still keeps growing, for it is a book not easily outlived: the
    _Essais_ of Montaigne.[8] That temperate and genial picture of life is
    a great gift to place in the hands of persons of to-day; they will
    find in these smiling pages a magazine of heroism and wisdom, all of
    an antique strain; they will have their "linen decencies"[9] and
    excited orthodoxies fluttered, and will (if they have any gift of
    reading) perceive that these have not been fluttered without some
    excuse and ground of reason; and (again if they have any gift of
    reading) they will end by seeing that this old gentleman was in a
    dozen ways a finer fellow, and held in a dozen ways a nobler view of
    life, than they or their contemporaries.

    The next book, in order of time, to influence me, was the New
    Testament, and in particular the Gospel according to St. Matthew. I
    believe it would startle and move any one if they could make a certain
    effort of imagination and read it freshly like a book, not droningly
    and dully like a portion of the Bible. Any one would then be able to
    see in it those truths which we are all courteously supposed to know
    and all modestly refrain from applying. But upon this subject it is
    perhaps better to be silent.

    I come next to Whitman's _Leaves of Grass_,[10] a book of singular
    service, a book which tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into
    space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion, and, having
    thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set me back again upon a strong
    foundation of all the original and manly virtues. But it is, once
    more, only a book for those who have the gift of reading.[11] I will
    be very frank--I believe it is so with all good books except, perhaps,
    fiction. The average man lives, and must live, so wholly in
    convention, that gun-powder charges of the truth are more apt to
    discompose than to invigorate his creed. Either he cries out upon
    blasphemy and indecency, and crouches the closer round that little
    idol of part-truths and part-conveniences which is the contemporary
    deity, or he is convinced by what is new, forgets what is old, and
    becomes truly blasphemous and indecent himself. New truth is only
    useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand,
    not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions. He who cannot
    judge had better stick to fiction and the daily papers. There he will
    get little harm, and, in the first at least, some good.

    Close upon the back of my discovery of Whitman, I came under the
    influence of Herbert Spencer.[12] No more persuasive rabbi exists. How
    much of his vast structure will bear the touch of time, how much is
    clay and how much brass, it were too curious to inquire. But his
    words, if dry, are always manly and honest; there dwells in his pages
    a spirit of highly abstract joy, plucked naked like an algebraic
    symbol but still joyful; and the reader will find there a _caput
    mortuum_[13] of piety, with little indeed of its loveliness, but with
    most of its essentials; and these two qualities make him a wholesome,
    as his intellectual vigour makes him a bracing, writer. I should be
    much of a hound if I lost my gratitude to Herbert Spencer.

    _Goethe's Life_, by Lewes,[14] had a great importance for me when it
    first fell into my hands--a strange instance of the partiality of
    man's good and man's evil. I know no one whom I less admire than
    Goethe; he seems a very epitome of the sins of genius, breaking open
    the doors of private life, and wantonly wounding friends, in that
    crowning offence of _Werther_, and in his own character a mere
    pen-and-ink Napoleon, conscious of the rights and duties of superior
    talents as a Spanish inquisitor was conscious of the rights and duties
    of his office. And yet in his fine devotion to his art, in his honest
    and serviceable friendship for Schiller, what lessons are contained!
    Biography, usually so false to its office, does here for once perform
    for us some of the work of fiction, reminding us, that is, of the
    truly mingled tissue of man's nature, and how huge faults and shining
    virtues cohabit and persevere in the same character. History serves us
    well to this effect, but in the originals, not in the pages of the
    popular epitomiser, who is bound, by the very nature of his task, to
    make us feel the difference of epochs instead of the essential
    identity of man, and even in the originals only to those who can
    recognise their own human virtues and defects in strange forms, often
    inverted and under strange names, often interchanged. Martial[15] is a
    poet of no good repute, and it gives a man new thoughts to read his
    works dispassionately, and find in this unseemly jester's serious
    passages the image of a kind, wise, and self-respecting gentleman. It
    is customary, I suppose, in reading Martial, to leave out these
    pleasant verses; I never heard of them, at least, until I found them
    for myself; and this partiality is one among a thousand things that
    help to build up our distorted and hysterical conception of the great
    Roman Empire.

    This brings us by a natural transition to a very noble book--the
    _Meditations_ of Marcus Aurelius.[16] The dispassionate gravity, the
    noble forgetfulness of self, the tenderness of others, that are there
    expressed and were practised on so great a scale in the life of its
    writer, make this book a book quite by itself. No one can read it and
    not be moved. Yet it scarcely or rarely appeals to the feelings--those
    very mobile, those not very trusty parts of man. Its address lies
    further back: its lesson comes more deeply home; when you have read,
    you carry away with you a memory of the man himself; it is as though
    you had touched a loyal hand, looked into brave eyes, and made a noble
    friend; there is another bond on you thenceforward, binding you to
    life and to the love of virtue.

    Wordsworth[17] should perhaps come next. Every one has been influenced
    by Wordsworth, and it is hard to tell precisely how. A certain
    innocence, a rugged austerity of joy, a night of the stars, "the
    silence that is in the lonely hills," something of the cold thrill of
    dawn, cling to his work and give it a particular address to what is
    best in us. I do not know that you learn a lesson; you need not--Mill
    did not--agree with any one of his beliefs; and yet the spell is cast.
    Such are the best teachers: a dogma learned is only a new error--the
    old one was perhaps as good; but a spirit communicated is a perpetual
    possession. These best teachers climb beyond teaching to the plane of
    art; it is themselves, and what is best in themselves, that they
    communicate.

    I should never forgive myself if I forgot _The Egoist_. It is art, if
    you like, but it belongs purely to didactic art, and from all the
    novels I have read (and I have read thousands) stands in a place by
    itself. Here is a Nathan for the modern David;[18] here is a book to
    send the blood into men's faces. Satire, the angry picture of human
    faults, is not great art; we can all be angry with our neighbour; what
    we want is to be shown, not his defects, of which we are too
    conscious, but his merits, to which we are too blind. And _The
    Egoist_[19] is a satire; so much must be allowed; but it is a satire
    of a singular quality, which tells you nothing of that obvious mote,
    which is engaged from first to last with that invisible beam. It is
    yourself that is hunted down; these are your own faults that are
    dragged into the day and numbered, with lingering relish, with cruel
    cunning and precision. A young friend of Mr. Meredith's (as I have the
    story) came to him in an agony. "This is too bad of you," he cried.
    "Willoughby is me!" "No, my dear fellow," said the author; "he is all
    of us." I have read _The Egoist_ five or six times myself, and I mean
    to read it again; for I am like the young friend of the anecdote--I
    think Willoughby an unmanly but a very serviceable exposure of myself.

    I suppose, when I am done, I shall find that I have forgotten much
    that was most influential, as I see already I have forgotten
    Thoreau,[20] and Hazlitt, whose paper "On the Spirit of Obligations"
    was a turning-point in my life, and Penn, whose little book of
    aphorisms had a brief but strong effect on me, and Mitford's
    _Tales[21] of Old Japan_, wherein I learned for the first time the
    proper attitude of any rational man to his country's laws--a secret
    found, and kept, in the Asiatic islands. That I should commemorate all
    is more than I can hope or the Editor could ask. It will be more to
    the point, after having said so much upon improving books, to say a
    word or two about the improvable reader. The gift of reading, as I
    have called it, is not very common, nor very generally understood. It
    consists, first of all, in a vast intellectual endowment--a free
    grace, I find I must call it--by which a man rises to understand that
    he is not punctually right, nor those from whom he differs absolutely
    wrong. He may hold dogmas; he may hold them passionately; and he may
    know that others hold them but coldly, or hold them differently, or
    hold them not at all. Well, if he has the gift of reading, these
    others will be full of meat for him. They will see the other side of
    propositions and the other side of virtues. He need not change his
    dogma for that, but he may change his reading of that dogma, and he
    must supplement and correct his deductions from it. A human truth,
    which is always very much a lie, hides as much of life as it displays.
    It is men who hold another truth, or, as it seems to us, perhaps, a
    dangerous lie, who can extend our restricted field of knowledge, and
    rouse our drowsy consciences. Something that seems quite new, or that
    seems insolently false or very dangerous, is the test of a reader. If
    he tries to see what it means, what truth excuses it, he has the gift,
    and let him read. If he is merely hurt, or offended, or exclaims upon
    his author's folly, he had better take to the daily papers; he will
    never be a reader.

    And here, with the aptest illustrative force, after I have laid down
    my part-truth, I must step in with its opposite. For, after all, we
    are vessels of a very limited content. Not all men can read all books;
    it is only in a chosen few that any man will find his appointed food;
    and the fittest lessons are the most palatable, and make themselves
    welcome to the mind. A writer learns this early, and it is his chief
    support; he goes on unafraid, laying down the law; and he is sure at
    heart that most of what he says is demonstrably false, and much of a
    mingled strain, and some hurtful, and very little good for service;
    but he is sure besides that when his words fall into the hands of any
    genuine reader, they will be weighed and winnowed, and only that which
    suits will be assimilated; and when they fall into the hands of one
    who cannot intelligently read, they come there quite silent and
    inarticulate, falling upon deaf ears, and his secret is kept as if he
    had not written.

    NOTES

    This article first appeared in the _British Weekly_ for 13 May 1887,
    forming Stevenson's contribution to a symposium on this subject by
    some of the celebrated writers of the day, including Gladstone,
    Ruskin, Hamerton; and others as widely different as Archdeacon Farrar
    and Rider Haggard. In the same year (1887) the papers were all
    collected and published by the _Weekly_ in a volume, with the title
    _Books Which Have Influenced Me_. This essay was later included in the
    complete editions of Stevenson's _Works_ (Edinburgh ed., Vol. XI,
    Thistle ed., Vol. XXII).

    [Note 1: First published in the _British Weekly_, May 13, 1887.]

    [Note 2: Of the _British Weekly_.]

    [Note 3: _The most influential books ... are works of fiction_. This
    statement is undoubtedly true, if we use the word "fiction" in the
    sense understood here by Stevenson. It is curious, however, to note
    the rise in dignity of "works of fiction," and of "novels"; people
    used to read them with apologies, and did not like to be caught at it.
    The cheerful audacity of Stevenson's declaration would have seemed
    like blasphemy fifty years earlier.]

    [Note 4: _Mrs. Scott Siddons_. Not for a moment to be confounded with
    the great actress Sarah Siddons, who died in 1831. Mrs. Scott Siddons,
    in spite of Stevenson's enthusiasm, was not an actress of remarkable
    power.]

    [Note 5: _Kent's brief speech_. Toward the end of _King Lear_.]

    "Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him
    That would upon the rack of this tough world
    Stretch him out longer."]

    [Note 6: _D'Artagnan ... Vicomte de Bragelonne_. See Stevenson's
    essay, _A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas's_ (1887), in _Memories and
    Portraits_. See also Note 3 of Chapter II above and Note 43 of Chapter
    IV above. _Vicomte de Bragelonne_ is the title of the sequel to
    _Twenty Years After_, which is the sequel to the _Musketeers_. Dumas
    wrote 257 volumes of romance, plays, travels etc.]

    [Note 7: _Pilgrim's Progress_. See Note 13 of Chapter V above.]

    [Note 8: _Essais of Montaigne_. See Note 6 of Chapter VI above. The
    best translation in English of the _Essais_ is that by the
    Elizabethan, John Florio (1550-1625), a contemporary of Montaigne. His
    translation appeared in 1603, and may now be obtained complete in the
    handy "Temple" classics. There is a copy of Florio's _Montaigne_ with
    Ben Jonson's autograph, and also one that has what many believe to be
    a genuine autograph of Shakspere.]

    [Note 9: "_Linen decencies_." "The ghost of a linen decency yet haunts
    us."--Milton, _Areopagitica_.]

    [Note 10: _Whitman's Leaves of Grass_. See Stevenson's admirable essay
    on _Walt Whitman_ (1878), also Note 12 of Chapter III above.]

    [Note 11: _Have the gift of reading_. "Books are written to be read by
    those who can understand them. Their possible effect on those who
    cannot, is a matter of medical rather than of literary interest."
    --Prof. W. Raleigh, _The English Novel_, remarks on _Tom Jones_,
    Chap. VI.]

    [Note 12: _Herbert_. See Note 18 of Chapter IV above.]

    [Note 13: _Caput mortuum_. Dry kernel. Literary, "dead head."]

    [Note 14: _Goethe's Life, by Lewes_. The standard Life of Goethe (in
    English) is still that by George Henry Lewes (1817-1878), the husband
    of George Eliot. His _Life of Goethe_ appeared in 1855; he later made
    a simpler, abridged edition, called _The Story of Goethe's Life_.
    Goethe, the greatest literary genius since Shakspere, and now
    generally ranked among the four supreme writers of the world, Homer,
    Dante, Shakspere, Goethe, was born in 1749, and died in 1832.
    Stevenson, like most British critics, is rather severe on Goethe's
    character. The student should read Eckermann's _Conversations with
    Goethe_, a book full of wisdom and perennial delight. For _Werther_,
    see Note 18 of Chapter VI above. The friendship between Goethe and
    Schiller (1759-1805), "his honest and serviceable friendship," as
    Stevenson puts it, is among the most beautiful things to contemplate
    in literary history. Before the theatre in Weimar, Germany, where the
    two men lived, stands a remarkable statue of the pair: and their
    coffins lie side by side in a crypt in the same town.]

    [Note 15: _Martial_. Poet, wit and epigrammatist, born in Spain 43 A.
    D., died 104. He lived in Rome from 66 to 100, enjoying a high
    reputation as a writer.]

    [Note 16: _Meditations of Marcus Aurelius_. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus,
    often called "the noblest of Pagans" was born 121 A. D., and died 180.
    His _Meditations_ have been translated into the chief modern
    languages, and though their author was hostile to Christianity, the
    ethics of the book are much the same as those of the New Testament.]

    [Note 17: _Wordsworth ... Mill_. William Wordsworth (1770-1850),
    poet-laureate (1843-1850), is by many regarded as the third poet in
    English literature, after Shakspere and Milton, whose places are
    unassailable. Other candidates for the third place are Chaucer and
    Spenser. "The silence that is in the lonely hills" is loosely quoted
    from Wordsworth's _Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle, Upon the
    Restoration of Lord Clifford_, published in 1807. The passage reads:

    "The silence that is in the starry sky,
    The sleep that is among the lonely hills."

    ... In the _Autobiography_ (1873) of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873),
    there is a remarkable passage where he testifies to the influence
    exerted upon him by Wordsworth.]

    [Note 18: _A Nathan for the modern David_. The famous accusation of
    the prophet to the king, "Thou art the man." See II _Sam_. 12.]

    [Note 19: _The Egoist_. See Note 47 of Chapter IV above. Stevenson
    never tired of singing the praises of this novel.]

    [Note 20: _Thoreau ... Hazlitt ... Penn ... Mitford's Tales.._. Henry
    David Thoreau (1817-1862), the American naturalist and writer, whose
    works impressed Stevenson deeply. See the latter's excellent essay on
    Thoreau (1880), in _Familiar Studies of Men and Books_.... Hazlitt,
    See Note 19 of Chapter II above. His paper, _On the Spirit of
    Obligations_, appeared in _The Plain Speaker_, 2 Vols., 1826. _Penn,
    whose little book of aphorisms_. This refers to William Penn's famous
    book, _Some Fruits of Solitude: in Reflections and Maxims relating to
    the Conduct of Human Life_ (1693). Edmund Gosse says, in his
    Introduction to a charming little edition of this book in 1900,
    "Stevenson had intended to make this book and its author the subject
    of one of his critical essays. In February 1880 he was preparing to
    begin it... He never found the opportunity... But it has left an
    indelible stamp on the tenor of his moral writings. The philosophy of
    B. L. S. ... is tinctured through and through with the honest, shrewd,
    and genial maxims of Penn." Stevenson himself, in his _Letters_ (Vol.
    I, pp. 232, 233), spoke of this little book in the highest terms of
    praise.]

    [Note 21: _Mitford's Tales_. Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855), a
    novelist and dramatist who enjoyed an immense vogue. "Her inimitable
    series of country sketches, drawn from her own experiences at Three
    Mile Cross, entitled 'Our Village,' began to appear in 1819 in the
    'Lady's Magazine,' a little-known periodical, whose sale was thereby
    increased from 250 to 2,000. ... The sketches had an enormous success,
    and were collected in five volumes, published respectively in 1824,
    1826, 1828, 1830, and 1832. ... The book may be said to have laid the
    foundation of a branch of literature hitherto untried. The sketches
    resemble Dutch paintings in their fidelity of detail."--_Dic. Nat.
    Biog_.]
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