It’s always interesting to learn about the reading habits of our favorite writers, and the books that loomed large in their lives and libraries. Last night, while reading one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (Sign of [The] Four), I was struck by this line, as Holmes says to Watson:
“Let me recommend this book – one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man.”
Naturally, I made a little note on my bookmark to research the title in the morning. I discovered that the book was a groundbreaking secular history of the world from the standpoint of a 19th century free thinker. It was a rather daring piece of work which stirred up a some controversy because of the author’s criticism of religion. William Winwood Reade (1838 – 1875) saw most religious belief as something akin to superstition stemming from ignorance. He felt established forms of religion were holding back progress and the advancement of science for the good of mankind. This is not to say he did not believe in a Creator – he apparently did – just not one we could depend upon to solve our problems for us.
A. Conan Doyle’s admiration for Reade’s book casts light on the character development of Sherlock Holmes and his purely logical and scientific approach to life.
I also learned that Martyrdom of Man is quite difficult to find in the U.S. – and that the first edition is pricey and rare. First published by Trubner & Co., London, 1872, it is currently available at prices ranging from about $1300 – $1440 on-line, and I could only locate two copies. Later editions are quite low priced, but seem to be only available from book shops in the U.K. or Australia. I checked to see if it was available at our college library, at our public library, or at the entire five-county system of libraries (no, no, and no). Great old books are disappearing. Of course there are some exorbitantly priced print-on-demand copies available, and you can actually download the text and read it for free on the internet.
But what fun is that, when we are talking about a book published 140 years ago that we want to dust off and put on our reading shelf? I want to read the book as Arthur Conan Doyle read it, not on a computer screen. So I have sent off for one.
Other famous people drew inspiration from Martyrdom of Man, including H. G. Wells, Winston Churchill, George Orwell, and A.A. Milne. There is an illuminating article about William Winwood Reade HERE.
Of course, this is not the first time I’ve been steered toward a book by a favorite author’s reference to a title in the text of his work. So-–this got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be fun to start a book collection based on books which were revered by one’s favorite authors? For a Hemingway fan, for instance, it would be satisfying to point to one’s bookcase and say, here are Hemingway’s favorite books. And to read them, imagining what Hemingway found exceptional about each one.
Ernest Hemingway listed the following books as his favorites in an article for Esquire Magazine in 1935 called “Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter.”
Far Away and Long Ago
War and Peace
A Sportsman’s Sketches
The Brothers Karamozov
Hail and Farewell
La Reine Margot
,La Maison Tellie
Le Rouge et le Noire
La Chartreuse de Parme
La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate)
Here are a few other possibilities to think about:
Agatha Christie’s favorite author was Charles Dickens (see http://www.poirot.us/facts.php). She particularly liked Bleak House, which she remembered her mother reading to her as a child. She even worked with MGM in writing a screenplay for Bleak House. Production was slated to start on the film in the spring of 1962, but it never materialized.
British writer Ian Fleming was a great book collector. As he wished, his collection remained intact after his death. It is at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, U.S.A. It was purchased by the University from Fleming’s wife Anne, and is available for personal or scholarly use. To see what author Ian Fleming of 007 fame collected, click here.
Most authors are motivated and inspired by the words and thoughts of other writers. Doesn’t this make you curious about your favorite author’s most beloved books? If you know what your favorite author (living or dead) considers cherished reading, please share in the comments section.