Habitual Mood

The List of Books (Raphael & McLeish)

Habitual Mood

I love a list of books, so it was impossible for me to pass up a whole book of lists of books called The List of Books, by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish. Published in 1981, it was intended "to furnish an 'imaginary library' of some three thousand volumes in which a reasonably literate person can hope to find both instruction and information, art and amusement." The authors' ambition to publish revised editions "every second year" evidently went unfulfilled.

It's a snapshot of a time - and a mentality - long before social media and content algorithms. If a layperson sought education or information outside of a formal learning environment, books were likely the place they would look. But which books? Raphael and McLeish provide entry-level and intermediate selections in everything from ancient history to mathematics to the occult. Naturally, a lot of the recommended non-fiction has been superseded, but even that provides historical interest: these are the books with which a "reasonably literate" person might wish to be familiar circa 1981.

The authors are congenial, providing elegant, sometimes waspish, capsule reviews of their selections. It's an overwhelmingly white, male, and Western "imaginary library", but perhaps less narrow than you might expect. There is an unwieldy system of symbols that is haphazardly applied but which adds to the idiosyncratic nature of the project. Overall, more of a curio than a practical guide, but nonetheless enjoyable to browse.

#books #books about books