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The Quarterly Review, Volume 162, No. 324, April, 1886

The characteristics of a catalogue raisonnee


In

the first place, a connected chain of histories, from the earliest times to the present day, with a selected list of contemporary memoirs and biographies, would throw a guiding gleam of light on thousands who are wandering, dark and aimless, in a labyrinth of 'masterpieces.' In this enquiry system is essential. Of desultory comments, charming and instructive in themselves and valuable in the formation of taste, we have abundant store. Who that has read Emerson's 'Essay on Books,' or Charles Lamb's 'Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading,' or Isaac Disraeli's 'Curiosities of Literature' and 'Literary Character,' or Byron's brilliant and impulsive criticisms on books and authors, can be without some kindling of enthusiasm and of desire to know more fully the great works thus passed in critical review? But the essential characteristics of such commentaries as these are snares to the student. The temptation to pass from one subject to another is inseparable from treatment of this kind, and so becomes a hindrance to more earnest application.

Dibdin's 'Library Companion' in some respects fulfils the requirements we have mentioned; but apart from the fact, that the information it contains is now in a great measure obsolete, too much space is devoted to the description and value of choice and rare editions. It is a book-buyer's rather than a reader's guide. Perkins's 'The Best Reading' is too bald a catalogue, and requires a vast amount of sifting, and

the addition of a few words of running comment to render it serviceable. It lacks, in short, the characteristics of a _catalogue raisonnee_.

The Historical List which we have proposed should be prefaced by a chronological table, indicating the epochs into which the World's History divides itself, and the periods covered by each of the works recommended. This would give the student a bird's-eye view of the field which he is about to explore, and enable him, at any moment in his exploration, to take his reckonings and verify his position.

Careful distinction should be made between Chroniclers and Historians, between those who have provided the materials and those who have designed and reared the complete structure. Sometimes these chroniclers have furnished merely rough and unhewn stones, useful in themselves, but with no pretence to artistic finish or individuality of character; and these have been absorbed into the building. Other chronicles, again, are perfected in form, and are not merely integral, essential portions of the complicated structure, but become a source of endless pleasure from the merit of their workmanship. Thucydides and Clarendon are universally read, while Hecataeus has all but vanished; and Thomas May's 'History of the Long Parliament,' though pronounced by Lord Chatham to be a 'much honester and more instructive book of the same period than Lord Clarendon's,' is relegated to the shelves of the specialist or the bookworm.

Histories are scarcely less ephemeral than books of science; and the object of the list we are advocating is not to provide an exhaustive catalogue, a task which in these days would overtax the capacity of half-a-dozen Dr. Johnsons, but to select those works which will give the best continuous narrative of the period under discussion, and represent the most recent scholarship; omitting those which have been absorbed or superseded.


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