Macintosh’s reading list

Letter from Macintosh to his son, 17 July 1779. Archives départementales de Vaucluse, 2 E Titres de famille 85, f. 24.

Letter from Macintosh to his son, 17 July 1779. Archives départementales de Vaucluse, 2 E Titres de famille 85, f. 24.

One of the first tasks completed by Lauren and Ophelia (aka Team Macintosh) has been the full transcription of the long letter Macintosh wrote to his son (who we have since learned was adopted) from Madras in 1779, setting out a series of life lessons and providing instructions as to his education and the proper development of his character. The letter, which runs to twenty-five pages, offers a fascinating insight into Macintosh’s views on religion, law, behaviour, dress, hygiene, exercise, deportment, conversation, and almost every aspect of life.

One part of the letter stands out as being particularly interesting: that in which Macintosh provides his son with suggestions about what to read and how to take notes from that reading. Macintosh’s was, clearly, a disciplined approached; he advised his son to “apportion stated times to reading, & be sure never to deviate from them; unless by dint of necessity”. Reading, moreover, was always to go hand-in-hand with writing, and Macintosh was no less specific in guiding his son on how to take notes as he read: “The form may be discretionary in yourself, but the author, page, time, & recital, are material; as well as your own remarks, together with queries for elucidation”.

As to the books Master Macintosh should be reading, only those “distinguished for morality, as well as for elegance of language” were to be considered (and then only with the approval of his preceptor). For Macintosh, histories and political dialogues were the most useful and instructive (“read as few novels & modern romances as possible”, he warned). Instead, Master Macintosh should

Read the Ancient Roman & Grecian Histories—The Histories of Britain, particularly by Hume & RobertsonBolingbrokes History, but not his other works—Littletons History, & Dialogues—Robertsons History of the Emperor Charles the 5th. Blackstones Commentaries—Swifts works—Chesterfields Letters—Gibbons’s rise & fall of the Roman Empire…These contain some of the richest English Language in print, & are useful & entertaining.—In the French there are many modern authors of great elegance entertainment & instruction. Telemachus by the Bishop of Cambray. The History of Cyrus—with the translations of the former by Hawkesworth, & the latter by Ramsay.—The Life of Belisarius—All the Abbe Raynals works—some of Voltaires—most of Rousseau’sMarmontels


Whilst we might reasonably infer that this bibliography reflected Macintosh’s own reading habits and history, it will be interesting to check how many of this titles are present in Macintosh’s private library in Avignon. Are these texts he himself owned, or merely those he thought his son should read?

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