Read Across America Day – Mark Twain Lists His Favorite Books For Children, and Himself

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | March 2, 2012

March 2, 2012
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For the last 15 years or so, every March 2nd, schools, libraries, local governments and First Ladies have gathered to extol the joy, and importance, of encouraging kids to read. Today, 45 million people will participate in Read Across America Day, sponsored by the National Education Association. The great American humorist Mark Twain probably would have held this august endeavor of public school educators squarely in his sights – but he, too, was vitally interested in reading, and here, aptly, lists those books, for young people, which he felt most likely to keep them at it….

It’s noble to teach oneself, Mark Twain once remarked, but still nobler to teach others – and less trouble. Accordingly, here Twain takes it easy on himself and suggests what other people ought to read – and names, in the process, a dozen of his favorite books.

Macaulay; [History of England]


Grant’s Memoirs;

Crusoe; [Robinson Crusoe]

 Arabian Nights;

Gulliver. [Gulliver’s Travels]

The same… after striking out Crusoe and substituting Tennyson…

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 & divorceable woman a sacrament sodden with levity by comparison.

In my list I know I should put Shakespeare; & 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that complacent old gasometer listen to himself talk; Jowett’s Plato; & “B.B.” (a book which I wrote some years ago, not for publication but just for my own private reading.)

[Twain was in all likelihood referring to his “Bible Book” about Noah, which he never finished]

Twain liked to say, truthfully, that his own schooling took place between the ages of 5 and 13, and consisted mostly of his “playing hooky & getting licked for it.” He also liked to say, untruthfully, that he wasn’t a bookish man. But the fact was that Twain was and had been, since boyhood, an avid reader. As much as he teased about education – God, for instance, only created idiots as practice for School Boards – he deeply valued learning. Supposing is good, he wrote in his autobiography, but finding out is better.

It bears noting that Twain’s adult reading was, chiefly, the same he prescribed for boys and girls. He read history, biography, and personal memoirs; some scientific works, lots of guidebooks, and, with a raucous ravenous appetite, anything absolutely awful. His library, which contained some 2,500 volumes, included, then, a deeply cherished collection of “Literary Hogwash.” And if he found entire books cringe worthy, so too did he take exception to individual bits and pieces of much of what he read. Hundreds of volumes from his library bear evidence, scribbled in the margins, of a mostly contemptuous conversation between himself and the author. Twain mocked, lambasted, corrected – and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He loved reading.


MARK TWAIN.  1835 – 1910. The pen name of Samuel L. Clemens and, arguably, America’s greatest novelist.

Autograph Letter Signed (“S.L. Clemens”), 3 pages, octavo, Hartford, January 20, 1887. To the Rev. C. D. Crane. With autograph envelope. 

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