Hecht's epigramatic book commentary appeared in our first issue of "The Ben Hecht Story & News," February 2000, and before that in the "Chicago Daily News," over 80 years ago
Below, photograph of Ben Hecht and his literary rival, Sherwood Anderson compliments the Newberry Library, Chicago
"Fifty Books That Are Books" by Ben Hecht
My friend writes me:
"As for the library, I want no more than fifty books. And none of them modern; that is, no novels that are coming off the presses these last ten years. Are there fifty intelligent books in the world? If you have time send along a list of fifty books. I promise to buy them and have them beautifully bound. I am consulting you as I would my lawyer. I have not time to develop a literary consciousness at my age. So if you were cutting your own library down to fifty books, which books would you keep?"
This is a very flattering letter. And the temptation is too insidious. I doubt whether there are fifty books that remain in my mind as amazing, beautiful or intelligent. But it is better to trust to one's memory than to one's bookshelves. Ten minutes in front of the bookshelves and there would be five hundred volumes, all demanding recognition. Old favorites, books that thrilled on a winter's evening years ago, books one has forgiven and adopted, books that represent the enthusiasms of adolescence; all these would clamor from the bookshelves.
But sitting in front of a typewriter on a hot summer day my memory offers the following fifty books to my friend.
1. The Idiot, by Dostoevsky. A marvelous novel. For years it has remained in my mind as the best book I ever read.
2. The House of the Dead, by Dostoevsky. Memoirs of a man buried in a Siberian prison.
3. At the Sign of the Reine Pedauque, by Anatole France. An epitome of the venom and listlessness which have been celebrated as the irony of M. France.
4. The Opinions of Jerome Coinard, by Anatole France.
5. The Genealogy of Morals, by Freiderich Nietzsche. Dynamite. Beware.
6. Ecce Homo, by Frederick Nietzsche. More dynamite, but diluted with skyrockets.
7. Zarathustra, by F. Nietzsche. As quaintly written as the Bible.
8. The Legend of Tyll Eulenspiegel, by De Coster. A historical novel crowded with poetry, pep and pleasure. A book to place alongside
9. The Works of Francois Rabelais. A rococo mausoleum, in which the soul of man lies in its happiest incarnation.
10. The Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci, by Daniel Merjckowski.
11. Natural Philosophy of Love, by Remy de Gourmont, in which Ezra Pound in an epilogue reveals what an ass he is and what boobs contemporary scribblers in the main are, alongside the genius of de Gourmont.
12. Morbid Fears and Compulsions, by Frink. The best orchestration of the psychanalysis (sic) penumbral I have encountered.
13. The Psychology of Insanity- - Hart. A tiny volume which tells all there is to be told about the thing. A blue print of modern thinking.
14. Fathers and Sons, by Turgenev. As I remember it there was a character called Bazarov or Barazov in this book. I tried to imitate Bazarov or Barazov for three years.
15. Masks and Minstrels of New Germany, by Percival Pollard. Pollard used to drink wine at the old Richeleau Hotel on Michigan Avenue.
16. Affirmations, by Havelock Ellis. James Huneker looted Havelock Ellis and Havelock Ellis looted de Gourmont.
17. A Book of Masks, by Remy de Gourmont. Nearly all modern literary criticism derives from 17.
18. En Route, by J.K Huysmans. His A Rebours is a better book but it is still untranslated. But En Route is good enough. Huysmans poured his passion into a vocabulary. His phrases are the adventure of proud syllables.
19. The Golden Ass, by Signore Apelius. Which supplied Signor Boccaccio and Signor Cervantes with almost too much material.
20. The Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius. Biography that reads like an old-fashioned Fourth of July gone mad.
21. The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. In which the unholy Roman Empire of Nero bows itself into the oblivion celebrated by the platitudinous Mr. Gibbon.
22. Margaret de Valois, by Alexander Dumas. De Medici, Henri of Navarre, Charles the Ninth, the poisoned page; the poisoned glove- -death! A book for the intellectual's hammock.
23. The History of Art, by Elie Faure. The song of the ages, the soul of man, the torment, tragedy, the beauty of life- - there was never another work like this written.
24. The Crowd, by LeBon. An antidote and an explanation.
25. The Golden Bough, by Frazer. Anthropology. The marvelous, the hideous, the illuminating beginning of his majesty the American citizen.
26. The French Revolution, by Carlisle. A dyspeptic dramatist. History on a jazz band. I prefer it that way.
27. M'mselle de Maupin, by Gautier. Its preface anticipates H. L. Mencken. The novel itself is Rabelais played on the violin.
28. Maggie, by Stephen Crane. Together with 29. George's Mother, by Stephen Crane, constituting the great American novel.
30. The Hill of Dreams, by Arthur Machen. To be read for its delicate Satanism.
31. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. The evangel of the American Renaissance.
32. Travel Pictures, by Heinrich Heine. Lingers like old wine in my memory.
33. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, who had intelligence enough to steal it from J.K. Huysman's A Rebours.
34. Decameron, by Boccaccio, who was the literary adviser of my favorite Spanish Italian, Caesar Borgia.
35. Prejudices, First Series, by H. L. Mencken, the berserker Americano.
36. Tono-Bungay, by an H. G. Wells who had not yet ascended the soapbox.
37. The Egoist, by George Meredith. To whom I still bow in passing.
38. Celibates, by George Moore. A sneering, vicious volume, lightly done.
39. Spiritual Adventures, by Arthur Symons, which contains my favorite short story about a piano player called Travelgya or Treveylga or something else.
40. Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence. As profound and beautiful a novel as England has ever turned out.
41. The Genius, by Theodore Dreiser.
42. Volume 6 of Burton's Arabian Nights, in which Bagdad (sic) dreams again.
43. The Memoirs, by Ben Cellini.
44. Salambo, by G. Flaubert. I almost forgot Salambo, beside which Madame Bovary is a stutter in monosyllables and inanities.
45. The Queen's Quair, by Maurice Hewlett. I read it on a boat and it kept me from seasickness.
46. To 50. 46. The Mystic Rose by Crawley;
47. Chicago Poems, by Sandburg; 48. The Renaissance by Gobineau; 49. Joan of Arc;50. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (condensed in the original).
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50 Books That Are Books appears in one of the apple green ceterfolios in The Ben Hecht Story & News, available for purchase.
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