Books and You. A Dissertation Upon Reading - W. Somerset Maugham

cover of Books and You, first edition, W. Somerset Maugham
Books and You - W. Somerset Maugham
First edition

Books and You. A Dissertation Upon Reading (London: Heinemann, 1940)

Books and You is a collection of three articles serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in February 1939, in them Maugham recommends books that he thinks all should read, using the criteria of readability, enjoyment, and most importantly, profit, that one would have missed something valuable if one has not read them.

In this post, we will look at some interesting points in the book and the first edition.

Books and You - Maugham's Essays and Literary Taste

By this time, Maugham was already a consummate essayist; two years before he published The Summing Up, going into details about the art of writing and communication with the reader. All this is just to say that the essays in themselves are highly enjoyable; they are easy to read; with Maugham's habitual smoothness the ideas and sentences flow with ease, occasionally you find yourself smiling, and before you know it, you already reach the end of the volume and with regret you close the book and put it back to the shelf.

Seventy-three years later, a huge avalanche of books has been written, but one can still gain something by reading Maugham's selection of books. I have to confess that though his choices are highly conventional I still have not read all the books that he mentions. Being reminded of the all time classics, next time when my eyes wander in the bookshelves choosing who's next it is likely that I will pick one of these he talks about.

Maugham hardly mentions any of his contemporaries. It is left to each to interpret his reasons, but he does say that only time will tell which books will last and which will not. If one can only read so many books in one's life time, one should aim for the ones that are truly worthwhile.

He emphasizes again the importance of pleasure that one gets out of reading; if this fundamental element is missing, then no matter how good a book is supposed to be it is worthless to the reader concerned. Personal taste should be the only yardstick in valuing a book.

The three essays are separated by geographical (and cultural of course) consideration. The first is about English literature, the second literature in foreign languages (European), and the third American.

The last one is especially interesting, though Maugham confesses that it is most incomplete due to the relative youth of the country and its people. He searches in the literature of each country the elemental essence of its soil and history. For the famous exiled Americans, inevitably, by staying in a foreign land (let's say, Paris), they cannot contribute, with the gift they have, to the development of a national literature that is essentially and unmistakably American.
For each writer and book he includes (either recommending fully, or half-heartedly, or not at all), Maugham makes a few succinct comments with his well-controlled humour. For example:
Perhaps he [Emerson] would have been a better writer if he had not been quite so good a man. (63)

At one time Mark Twain was somewhat patronized because he was a humorist, and the pundits are apt to look askance at contemporary humour; but his death has reassured them and now he is, I think, universally accepted as one of the greatest of American authors. (71)

Like Miss Emmeline Grangerford, Emily Dickinson could rattle off poetry like nothing. (74)

Now looking at it, it seems that he saves most of his humorous remarks for his fellows across the Atlantic...

Books and You - First Edition

Books and You, copyright, first edition, W. Somerset Maugham
Copyright page, Books and You,
W. Somerset Maugham

The first edition of this collection is straightforward. The UK Heinemann edition was published four days before that of the Doubleday, Doran & Co. For both editions, copies with dust jacket are still very affordable.

Books and you at AbeBooks
Books and You (US 1st) at
Books and You (UK ed.) at AmazonUK - this one shows a different dust jacket, however, I would think that it is that of the US edition instead
Books and You (another UK 1st) at AmazonUK


  1. Dear friend,
    I am going back to my country tomorrow. Sadly, it is a place that google blogger is blocked. So that I may not be able to access to your lovely blog anymore(Though I may ask my friends abroad to copy the article for me to see, hope you don't mind). I want to thank you for your blog. I have a absolutely wonderful time to read all the articles. I wish we can stay in touch through emails. And last, thank you! Have a nice day.


    1. I'm so glad that you enjoy my blog but sad about the limited access. I won't mind at all, of course. Hope you have a good trip!


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