Edward Clarke has made it to 40 without reading all the good books

Constantly asked about books he had never heard of, books everybody was reading, while lecturing in America in the 1930s, the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats remembered what the tragic English poet and brilliant Oxford graduate Lionel Johnson used to say: “A man should have read through all good books before he was 40 and after that be satisfied with six.”

Poor old Lionel Johnson didn’t make it to 40. When he was only 35 he fell from a barstool in the Green Dragon in Fleet Street and died soon afterwards at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

I have just made it to 40 but I am left with the sobering thought that I have not quite made it through all the good books quite yet. I have not even read most of Lionel Johnson. I could remedy this terrible situation, I suppose, by preparing a class on him for next term, then again, I am pretty sure that none of his books will be among my final six.

When the very drains of Oxford smell of books, or so I once overheard a tour guide exclaim in Radcliffe Square, it’s hard not to feel unnerved by the sheer abysm of what one hasn’t read.

I enjoyed taking students into the Weston Library exhibition this summer to see quartos and folios of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, probably because I know their works well already.

But it occurred to me that Yeats briefly rented “charming old rooms” in a house, now demolished, on that very spot in 1918, when he had begun research for his esoteric book A Vision: a work communicated to him by spirits through his young wife’s automatic writing.

I would love to see an exhibition curated out of the strange books consulted then, most of which I’m sure I haven’t read through.

How wonderful of the Irish poet to move to Oxford to investigate a reading list provided by spirits of the dead! Perhaps that’s exactly what many of us have done, although I’m not sure how those spirits could approve of some of the texts that have crept on to many modern syllabi.

In any case Yeats was clearly not satisfied with just six books after the age of 40. When somebody asked him to name the titles he would choose, he failed to provide an adequate answer: “I said I wanted six authors and not six books, and I named four authors, choosing not from those that I should, but from those that did most move me, and I said I had forgotten the names of the other two.”

Yeats chose Shakespeare, then the Arabian Nights, then William Morris (who gives him all the great stories), then Balzac.

As newspapers begin to provide their recommendations of books for this Christmas how many of those would you choose for your final six?

Because I am supposed to read so much for teaching and have so little time of my own, I only turn to the 1611 text of the King James Bible these days, following the calendar of lessons at the front, a timetable that includes some of the Apocrypha but omits sadly most of The Revelation of St John the Divine. At least I get to read the Psalms through once a month.