Mark Twain Creates a List of His Favorite Books For Adults & Kids (1887)


In Jan­u­ary of 1887, Mark Twain wrote the above let­ter to a Rev­erend Charles D. Crane, pas­tor of a Methodist Epis­co­pal Church in Maine, to advise him of the most suit­able read­ing for both chil­dren and adults. Twain’s letter—which, as he did near­ly all his let­ters, he signed with his giv­en name of Samuel Clemens (or “S.L. Clemens”)—came in response to a query in three parts from the Rev. Crane. But we do not seem to have Crane’s let­ter (at least a thor­ough search of the exhaus­tive cat­a­log at the online Mark Twain Project yields no results.) Nonethe­less, we can rea­son­ably infer that he asked the famous author—who was between Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn and A Con­necti­cut Yan­kee in King Arthur’s Court—some­thing like the fol­low­ing:

1) What books should young boys read? 2) And young girls? … 3) [and both/either] What should grown-ups read? [and/or] What are Mr. Samuel Clemens’ favorite books?

Twain, in a hur­ry, “took a shot on the wing” and replied with the let­ter below, which, despite his protes­ta­tions of haste, seems fair­ly well-con­sid­ered. I’ll admit that the ambi­gu­i­ty of the last sen­tence, how­ev­er, gives me the researcher’s buzz to go back and dig through more archives for Crane’s orig­i­nal let­ter.

Dear Sir:

I am just start­ing away from home, & have no time to think the ques­tions over & prop­er­ly con­sid­er my answers; but I take a shot on the wing at the mat­ter, as fol­lows:

Grant’s Mem­oirs;
Ara­bi­an Nights;

= 2. The same for the girl, after strik­ing out out Cru­soe & sub­sti­tut­ing Ten­nyson.

I can’t answer No. 3 in this sud­den way.  When one is going to choose twelve authors, for bet­ter for worse, for­sak­ing fathers & moth­ers to cling unto them & unto them alone, until death shall them part, there is an awful­ness about the respon­si­bil­i­ty that makes mar­riage with one mere indi­vid­ual & divorcible woman a sacra­ment sod­den with lev­i­ty by com­par­i­son. 

In my list I know I should put Shak­s­peare [sic]; & Brown­ing; & Car­lyle (French Rev­o­lu­tion only); Sir Thomas Mal­o­ry (King Arthur); Park­man’s His­to­ries (a hun­dred of them if there were so many); Ara­bi­an Nights; John­son (Boswell’s), because I like to see that com­pla­cent old gas­om­e­ter lis­ten to him­self talk; Jowet­t’s Pla­to; & “B.B.” (a book which I wrote some years ago, not for pub­li­ca­tion but just for my own pri­vate read­ing.)

I should be sure of these; & I could add the oth­er three — but I should want to hold the oppor­tu­ni­ty open a few years, so as to make no mis­take.

Tru­ly Yours


See all six man­u­script pages of Twain’s let­ter (and zoom in to exam­ine them close­ly) at the Shapell Man­u­script Foun­da­tion. We’ve added links to Twain’s rec­om­mend­ed texts above. You can find many in our Free eBooks and Free Audio Books col­lec­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Christo­pher Hitchens Cre­ates a Read­ing List for Eight-Year-Old Girl

Neil deGrasse Tyson Lists 8 (Free) Books Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Should Read.

“Noth­ing Good Gets Away”: John Stein­beck Offers Love Advice in a Let­ter to His Son (1958)

F. Scott Fitzger­ald Tells His 11-Year-Old Daugh­ter What to Wor­ry About (and Not Wor­ry About) in Life, 1933

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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