Saturday, May 23, 2015

Best Books

A current offering on ABE is a cache of letters, addressed to E.H. Visiak, for an author’s symposium for John o’London’s Weekly in early 1924.  The seller is David J. Holmes Autographs, of Hamilton, New York, and the thirteen letters (7 autograph letters and 6 typed letters) are priced US$1,000.  The physical documents don’t interest me, but the contents do, and I recently enlisted the aid of a friend (thanks, John!) and now have a copy of the symposium, “My Best Book: Famous Authors Name Their Favourites for John o’London,” published in the 22 March 1924 issue. E.H. Visiak is nowhere mentioned in the article, but clearly he prepared it for publication. Some twenty-six authors (or their secretaries) are quoted.  Here is a selection of the ones that interest me the most, listed alphabetically:

J. D. Beresford

“My favourite is The Hampdenshire Wonder, which has the distinction of having sold fewer copies and of having brought me more friends than any other novel of mine. . . . The book wrote itself. I could not get it down fast enough. And it has always remained to me as the admired work of another person rather than of my own.”

Algernon Blackwood

Mr. Algernon Blackwood selects the Centaur, as having expressed most of himself.

G.K. Chesterton

Mr. Chesterton’s secretary writes: “In reply to your letter of to-day, Mr. Chesterton asks me to say that he considers all his works deplorable, but the one that has given him most satisfaction to have written is Orthodoxy.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“I think Sir Nigel my best novel, and The White Company second.”

Arthur Machen

“I should think that on the whole The Hill of Dreams is my most successful experiment in literature . . .  [sic]
“Whatever merit the book may have is perhaps due to the fact that it is a reflection of the impressions of my native county, Gwent, or Monmouthshire, which I gathered when I was a boy.
“I am a great believer in the doctrine that a man of letters knows everything vital that he is to know by the time he is 18.
“When I read that Mr. Thingumbob has gone to Penzance or Pernambuco ‘to get local colour for his new novel’ I know that Mr. Thingumbob, is, roughly speaking, a rotter.”

Barry Pain

Mr. Barry Pain thinks that his best book is Going Home:  “It is,” he says, “in the vein of fantasy and I enjoyed writing it.”

Rafael Sabatini

“In my own opinion Scaramouche is the best novel I have written. At least, in Scaramouche I was less conscious than usual when the work was done of a gap between the aim and the achievement.”

Other authors responding include Joseph Conrad (his letter appears in Visiak’s book on Conrad), John Galsworthy, Jerome K. Jerome, John Masefield, George Bernard Shaw, May Sinclair, etc. 


  1. I agree with Machen about "The Hill of Dreams." I first read it as a teenager after finding a quite battered mustard-yellow Knopf edition in my grandmother's library one summer. I was completely absorbed by its beauty from page one and read it in one long sitting.
    Of the other writers I have read on the list, I could not disagree more. Sir Nigel?! Really? I suppose writers like Conan Doyle and Chesterton grew to dislike their most popular characters.

  2. May Sinclair is one of the great, undiscovered writers of the supernatural.

  3. I read Sir Nigel and the White Company as a child and remember liking them better than Holmes, so my vote is with Doyle on this. Some very memorable, amusing characters, and funnier than one might think, in a dry way.
    The Chesterton one made me smile, as a fan of GKC's - the self-deprecating tone is endearingly characteristic. Also, that he was probably too busy writing novels, short stories, polemics, philosophy, essays, etc, to reply personally. (Or visiting Market Harborough.)
    I would have liked to know what Jerome K Jerome thought was his best book. Judging from the other authors' opinions, it would _not_ have been Three Men in a Boat.