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Choosing Books

image Best Hundred Books: Containing an Article on the Choice of Books. London: "Pall Mall Gazette" Office, [1886].

During the 19th century, an unprecedented increase in the number of books printed in the US and Europe resulted in the emergence of new and bewildering mass markets. In response, best-books lists, reading guides, library selection manuals, and lists of prohibited books appeared, all purporting to help readers, librarians, and book providers to navigate this new sea of printed matter.

Steeped in the moral imperatives of a Victorian culture of self-improvement, these guides attempted to mediate reading practice by championing the value of some books over others. Some works promoted general courses of edifying reading or outlined a course of reading on a particular subject or for a particular audience. Other works enumerated the "best books," according to various criteria or, conversely, listed prohibited books and warned readers, booksellers, and librarians against the dangers of bad books. The most famous and long-running list of prohibited books was the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, published in various editions by the Roman Catholic Church from the mid-16th century to the mid-20th century. Selection guides also counseled readers on how to read—and not simply on what to read.

Selections from Harvard

Published Materials

From Widener Library, published materials in the Reading collection include best-books lists, guides to selecting works for libraries, and works on the art of reading. Also included is a small selection of works on prohibited reading matter. The majority of works are in English and French and mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries.


Best books
Prohibited books
Art of reading