Over their holiday vacations in Hawaii or St. Barts, everyone in Hollywood vows to read the greats of literature, turning their backs on the latest stack of scripts. Such promises are not always kept, but nevertheless here are some recommendations I would offer to anyone interested:
Read the best of the best. Read those authors who capture your interest through their magic prose, and whose works have stood the test of time. Start first with Shakespeare. A tip to make Shakespeare more enticing for young readers. Get a Walkman and audio tapes of the Plays. Put the actual written text of the play in front of you. Then listen to great actors speak the lines. What the eye is reading now engages and connects to what the ear is hearing. It is, I promise you, a sensual experience.
The greatest writers of English prose, in my judgment, are Lord Macaulay and Edward Gibbon. Just beneath them are Winston Churchill, William Prescott, Francis Parkman and H.G. Wells. Read Macaulay and Gibbon and you’ll hear symphonic music on every page. It’s hypnotic.
I especially commend Macaulay’s essays on Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, Francis Bacon, Warren Hastings (maybe his best), John Hampden, Lord Chatham (the elder Pitt), and his son, William Pitt, (England’s prime minister at age 24). His History of England is a marvel. I have a set of the complete works of Macaulay, given to me by McGeorge Bundy.
About Mr. Churchill. Whenever I take a long trip and bring along several books, Churchill is usually among them. If you haven’t read Churchill, then start with his “Great Contemporaries,” which is a series of vignettes about public figures from a long ago era: Lord Rosebery, H. H. Asquith, Lawrence of Arabia, F. E. Smith, Arthur James Balfour, etc. As a young cavalry subaltern in India, Churchill devoured all the works of Macaulay and Gibbon whence sprung his Nobel Prize for Literature writing style.
Read Will Durant’s “Story of Civilization,” which unhappily ended a few years ago with his 11th volume, “The Age of Napoleon.” Most men and women have a “springboard book,” which had a lasting effect on one’s reading habits. Mine was Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy,” which I first read when I was beginning my freshman year in high school. It was full of strange folks I had really never heard of, with odd names like Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Kant, Voltaire, Bertrand Russell and others. I puzzled over them and determined to find out more about them. I owe Mr. Durant so very much for he introduced me to new folks who became my lifelong companions.
I thoroughly enjoyed Duff Cooper’s “Talleyrand” as well as Jean Orieux’s biography of that charming rogue. It was said of Talleyrand that “he was a turncoat who bore no grudges against those he deserted.” He was France’s most durable, successful diplomat, serving both Napoleon and the Bourbon kings, finally achieving his historic role as the grand corrupter and the ultimate cynic (what a movie he would make!) Maybe there is a contemporary lesson there.
Finally, I offer up Edith Hamilton, whose “The Greek Way” and “The Roman Way” are to be read again and again. How beautiful they are. In her appraisal of the ancient Greeks, she wrote: “History has yet to find a greater exponent than Thucydides; outside of the Bible, there is no poetical prose that can touch Plato; in poetry they are all but supreme; no epic is to be mentioned with Homer, no odes to be set beside Pindar; of the four masters of the tragic stage, three are Greek.” Go with Miss Hamilton. You can’t lose. But you need not dwell exclusively among the ancients. McCullough, Schlesinger, Beschloss in our contemporary have magic pens that sing and glide. Nary a desolate page to be found.
As for novels, that’s another story. If you read John Steinbeck, Graham Greene, Theodore Dreiser, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope along with Jane Austen, you will know what superior story telling is all about. But each of us is enticed by different forms and styles. I truly tried to like reading James Fennimore Cooper, Henry James and James Joyce, but I failed. They were to me just plain dull and dullness is the one sin for which there is no expiation. But maybe you will succeed where I was deficient.
If you follow this list diligently, you will pay a price for this adventure. You will forever be offended by those who are casual about the English language and the declarative English sentence, which is a noble thing indeed. You will never again be ready to accept the coarse joining of unkempt prose. But I daresay it is a price that you will gladly pay.