Christmas Books

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 20, 1910

The Ancient Favorites

No doubt you are buying books this week. All of us do so at Christmas time. Books offer what may be called a standing solution to the eternal and infernal Christmas-present problem. After you have sought in vain, for weary days and weeks, for a suitable present for Uncle Snodgrass or good old Grandpa, vacillating in agony, let us say, between a gold-headed cane and a basket of Rhine wine, a pair of rococo slippers and 100,000 shares of mine stock, you compromise, in the end, upon an elegant set of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall,” bound in mauve calf and with copious illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy. To Aunt Maggie, that ardent Christan Endeavorer, you send a superb copy, in blue silk and gilt, of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” To young Rudolph, the son of your cousin Gwendolen, you send the works of Orison Swett Marden. For the infants of the gens—the sticky little devils who look so much alike and bawl so loudly when you try to be genial with them—you order a hundred weight of chromatic volumes by Kate Greenaway, Joel Chandler Harris, the Brothers Grimm, Oliver Optic, Lewis Carroll and other such entertainers of the jejune.

The same old books are bought and given year after year. Go into the bookstores and you will see huge pyramids of the novels of Bulwer-Lytton, the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Fitzgerald’s Omar (in a score of gaudy and painful bindings), the poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Motley’s “Rise of the Dutch Republic,” Fenimore Cooper’s atrocious romances, the essays of Emerson, cheap reprints of Kipling’s earlier and uncopyrighted stories, Shakespeare in trashy near-leather, Wilkie Collins, Eugene Sue, Victor Hugo, De Maupassant, Dumas Pere, Sienkiewicz and Charles Garvice—stupid and silly “gift” books innumerable.

Rubaiyats By The Peck

Such stuff is bought by the wagon load every Christmas. Very little of it, I fancy, is ever read. What civilized human being, in this year of grace 1910, actually enjoys Bulwer-Lytton? Who among us still reads Cooper, Collins and Sue? We go roaring through De Maupassant, Dumas and Hugo in our nonage—and then promptly forget them. We are cured of Poe by 18 and of the Rubaiyat by 20. And yet these dull and deadly books (and the good books which everyone who likes to read at all already owns) are printed by the ton and bought by the ton and presented by the ton. I have myself received more than 15 copies of old Omar in the past 15 years, and have given away, I should say, fully 20—and every one went to some person who already had a better copy and didn’t want another.

Why not get out of this rut? Why not break away from the hideous “presentation” books, the ghastly “sets” of soporific novels, the dull poetry, the childish books of travel, the plush-and-onyx editions de luxe which burden the book counters at this season? Instead of sending Uncle Snodgrass Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall,” which he tried to read at college, with poor success, why not send him Andrew D. White’s “History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom”—a noble two-volume work that is as entertaining as a novel, and one which, despite its formidable title, does not preach atheism. Or Froude’s “Thomas a Becket”? Or the same author’s marvelous “Caesar”? Or “The Great Deeds of the Estimable Gargantua”? Or Huxley’s essays? Or a good copy of the immortal Benvenuto? Or Sterne’s “Sentimental Journey”? or, if he likes tales of great deeds, Slatin Pasha’s “Fire and Sword in the Soudan,” or George W. Stevens’ “With Kitchener to Khartoum” or “With the Conquering Turk”?

Books Of Adventure

These are old books, but eternally good ones. If you want something newer, there is still a plentiful stock. Colonel Roosevelt’s “African Game Trails” is a splendid volume, well written and beautifully bound and illustrated. It costs $4. Another excellent book of African adventures is that recently published by John T. McCutcheon, the cartoonist. Peary’s Arctic book is rather dull, but Harry Whitney’s “Hunting With the Eskimos” is not. Of earlier date, but still far from outworn, are Lafcadio Hearn’s numerous volumes—the incomparable “Five Years in the French West Indies” and the Japanese series—and the lesser works of Stevens.

If Uncle Snodgrass is a playgoer, there are scores of new books that he will like, for, after a hundred years of abeyance, the good old English custom of printing plays has been revived. John Galsworthy’s “Three Plays” contains “Strife” and two others; his “Justice” has just come out in a separate volume at 60 cents. The plays of George Bernard Shaw are to be had in five volumes—“Man and Superman,” two volumes of “Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant,” “Three Plays for Puritans” and “John Bull’s Other Island.” His delightful reviews appear in two volumes, as “Dramatic Opinions and Essays.” In separate volumes you can get Edward Sheldon’s “The Nigger,” Charles Rann Kennedy’s “The Servant in the House,” William Vaughn Moody’s “The Great Divide,” Rostand’s “Chantecler,” in either French or English; Maeterlinck’s “The Blue Bird” and “Mary Magdalene,” not to mention his “Mona Vanna” and “Sister Beatrice:” Augustus Thomas’ “Arizona” and half a dozen of the Fitch plays, including “The Climbers,” “The Girl With the Green Eyes” and “Nathan Hale.” The cost of these books ranges from 75 cents to $1.25.

Maybe you have to buy for a novel reader. Well, there are plenty of new novels worth buying. One of them is H.G. Wells’ “Tono-Bungay,” now a year old; another is his “Ann Veronica”; yet another is his “Mr. Polly.” The “Simon the Jester” and “Septimus” of W. J. Locke belong to the front rank of sentimental comedy. Then there are the excellent later novels of David Graham Phillipe—“The Hungry Heart” and “The Husband’s Story”—Leonid Andreyev’s appalling study of the fear of death, “The Seven Who Were Hanged”; Johan Bojer’s “The Power of a Lie”’ Henry James’ “Julia Bride”; Joseph Conrad’s wonderful “Typhoon,” “Falk,” “Lord Jim,” “Youth” and “The Nigger of the Narcissus”; Galsworthy’s “A Motley”; George Meredith’s “Celt and Saxon”; Jesse Lynch Williams’ “The Married Life of the Frederic Carrolls”; Henry Milner Rideout’s “Dragon’s Blood”; the new books of William de Morgan and Arnold Bennett; Stephen French Whitman’s “Predestined”; Kipling’s “Actions and Reactions”

More tomorrow—not yet too late, for most of us are still hard at it. And also a few to avoid.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection) 

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