Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Books Which Have Influenced Me

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_.]

Robert Louis Stevenson

Sorry, no summary available yet.