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The Muse Of History Post by :Draven Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :3740

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The Muse Of History

Two distinguished men of letters, each an admirable representative of his University--Mr. John Morley and Professor Seeley--have lately published opinions on the subject of history, which, though very likely to prove right, deserve to be carefully considered before assent is bestowed upon them.

Mr. Morley, when President of the Midland Institute, and speaking in the Town Hall of Birmingham, said: 'I do not in the least want to know what happened in the past, except as it enables me to see my way more clearly through what is happening to-day,' and this same indifference is professed, though certainly nowhere displayed, in other parts of Mr. Morley's writings. {1}

Footnote:

{1} Critical Miscellanies, vol. iii., p. 9.

Professor Seeley never makes his point quite so sharp as this, and probably would hesitate to do so, but in the Expansion of England he expounds a theory of history largely based upon an indifference like that which Mr. Morley professed at Birmingham. His book opens thus: 'It is a favourite maxim of mine that history, while it should be scientific in its method, should pursue a practical object--that is, it should not merely gratify the reader's curiosity about the past, but modify his view of the present and his forecast of the future. Now, if this maxim be sound, the history of England ought to end with something that might be called a moral.'

This, it must be admitted, is a large order. The task of the historian, as here explained, is not merely to tell us the story of the past, and thus gratify our curiosity, but, pursuing a practical object, to seek to modify our views of the present and help us in our forecasts of the future, and this the historian is to do, not unconsciously and incidentally, but deliberately and of set purpose. One can well understand how history, so written, will usually begin with a maxim, and invariably end with a moral.

What we are afterwards told in the same book follows in logical sequence upon our first quotation--namely, that 'history fades into mere literature (the italics are ours), when it loses sight of its relation to practical politics.' In this grim sentence we read the dethronement of Clio. The poor thing must forswear her father's house, her tuneful sisters, the invocation of the poet, the worship of the dramatist, and keep her terms at the University, where, if she is really studious and steady, and avoids literary companions (which ought not to be difficult), she may hope some day to be received into the Royal Society as a second- rate science. The people who do not usually go to the Royal Society will miss their old playmate from her accustomed slopes, but, even were they to succeed in tracing her to her new home, access would be denied them; for Professor Seeley, that stern custodian, has his answer ready for all such seekers. 'If you want recreation, you must find it in Poetry, particularly Lyrical Poetry. Try Shelley. We can no longer allow you to disport yourselves in the Fields of History as if they were a mere playground. Clio is enclosed.'

At present, however, this is not quite the case; for the old literary traditions are still alive, and prove somewhat irritating to Professor Seeley, who, though one of the most even-tempered of writers, is to be found on p. 173 almost angry with Thackeray, a charming person, who, as we all know, had, after his lazy literary fashion, made an especial study of Queen Anne's time, and who cherished the pleasant fancy that a man might lie in the heather with a pipe in his mouth, and yet, if he had only an odd volume of the Spectator or the Tatler in his hand, be learning history all the time. 'As we read in these delightful pages,' says the author of Esmond, 'the past age returns; the England of our ancestors is revivified; the Maypole rises in the Strand; the beaux are gathering in the coffee-houses;' and so on, in the style we all know and love so well, and none better, we may rest assured, than Professor Seeley himself, if only he were not tortured by the thought that people were taking this to be a specimen of the science of which he is a Regius Professor. His comment on this passage of Thackeray's is almost a groan. 'What is this but the old literary groove, leading to no trustworthy knowledge?' and certainly no one of us, from letting his fancy gaze on the Maypole in the Strand, could ever have foretold the Griffin. On the same page he cries: 'Break the drowsy spell of narrative. Ask yourself questions, set yourself problems; your mind will at once take up a new attitude. Now, modern English history breaks up into two grand problems--the problem of the Colonies and the problem of India.' The Cambridge School of History with a vengeance!

In a paper read at the South Kensington Museum in 1884, Professor Seeley observes: 'The essential point is this, that we should recognise that to study history is to study not merely a narrative, but at the same time certain theoretical studies.' He then proceeds to name them:--Political philosophy, the comparative study of legal institutions, political economy, and international law.

These passages are, I think, adequate to give a fair view of Professor Seeley's position. History is a science, to be written scientifically and to be studied scientifically in conjunction with other studies. It should pursue a practical object and be read with direct reference to practical politics--using the latter word, no doubt, in an enlightened sense. History is not a narrative of all sorts of facts--biographical, moral, political--but of such facts as a scientific diagnosis has ascertained to be historically interesting. In fine, history, if her study is to be profitable and not a mere pastime, less exhausting than skittles and cheaper than horse exercise, must be dominated by some theory capable of verification by reference to certain ascertained facts belonging to a particular class. Is this the right way of looking upon history? The dictionaries tell us that history and story are the same word, and are derived from a Greek source, signifying information obtained by inquiry. The natural definition of history, therefore, surely is the story of man upon earth, and the historian is he who tells us any chapter or fragment of that story. All things that on earth do dwell have, no doubt, their history as well as man; but when a member, however humble, of the human race speaks of history without any explanatory context, he may be presumed to be alluding to his own family records, to the story of humanity during its passage across the earth's surface.

'A talent for history'--I am quoting from an author whose style, let those mock at it who may, will reveal him--'may be said to be born with us as our chief inheritance. History has been written with quipo-threads, with feather pictures, with wampum belts, still oftener with earth-mounds and monumental stone-heaps, whether as pyramid or cairn; for the Celt and the Copt, the red man as well as the white, lives between two eternities, and warring against oblivion, he would fain unite himself in clear, conscious relation, as in dim, unconscious relation he is already united, with the whole future and the whole past.'

To keep the past alive for us is the pious function of the historian. Our curiosity is endless, his the task of gratifying it. We want to know what happened long ago. Performance of this task is only proximately possible; but none the less it must be attempted, for the demand for it is born afresh with every infant's cry. History is a pageant, and not a philosophy.

Poets, no less than professors, occasionally say good things even in prose, and the following oracular utterance of Shelley is not pure nonsense:--'History is the cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of men. The past, like an inspired rhapsodist, fills the theatre of everlasting generations with her harmony.'

If this be thought a little too fanciful, let me adorn these pages with a passage from one of the great masters of English prose--Walter Savage Landor. Would that the pious labour of transcription could confer the tiniest measure of the gift! In that bundle of imaginary letters Landor called Pericles and Aspasia, we find Aspasia writing to her friend Cleone as follows:

'To-day there came to visit us a writer who is not yet an author; his name is Thucydides. We understand that he has been these several years engaged in preparation for a history. Pericles invited him to meet Herodotus, when that wonderful man had returned to our country, and was about to sail from Athens. Until then it was believed by the intimate friends of Thucydides that he would devote his life to poetry, and, such is his vigour both of thought and expression, that he would have been the rival of Pindar. Even now he is fonder of talking on poetry than any other subject, and blushed when history was mentioned. By degrees, however, he warmed, and listened with deep interest to the discourse of Pericles on the duties of a historian.

'"May our first Athenian historian not be the greatest," said he, "as the first of our dramatists has been, in the opinion of many. We are growing too loquacious, both on the stage and off. We make disquisitions which render us only more and more dim-sighted, and excursions that only consume our stores. If some among us who have acquired celebrity by their compositions, calm, candid, contemplative men, were to undertake the history of Athens from the invasion of Xerxes, I should expect a fair and full criticism on the orations of Antiphon, and experience no disappointment at their forgetting the battle of Salamis. History, when she has lost her Muse, will lose her dignity, her occupation, her character, her name. She will wander about the Agora; she will start, she will stop, she will look wild, she will look stupid, she will take languidly to her bosom doubts, queries, essays, dissertations, some of which ought to go before her, some to follow, and all to stand apart. The field of history should not merely be well tilled, but well peopled. None is delightful to me or interesting in which I find not as many illustrious names as have a right to enter it. We might as well in a drama place the actors behind the scenes, and listen to the dialogue there, as in a history push valiant men back and protrude ourselves with husky disputations. Show me rather how great projects were executed, great advantages gained, and great calamities averted. Show me the generals and the statesmen who stood foremost, that I may bend to them in reverence; tell me their names, that I may repeat them to my children. Teach me whence laws were introduced, upon what foundation laid, by what custody guarded, in what inner keep preserved. Let the books of the treasury lie closed as religiously as the Sibyl's; leave weights and measures in the market-place, Commerce in the harbour, the Arts in the light they love, Philosophy in the shade; place History on her rightful throne, and at the sides of her Eloquence and War."'

This is, doubtless, a somewhat full-dress view of history. Landor was not one of our modern dressing-gown-and-slippers kind of authors. He always took pains to be splendid, and preferred stately magnificence to chatty familiarity. But, after allowing for this, is not the passage I have quoted infused with a great deal of the true spirit which should animate the historian, and does it not seem to take us by the hand and lead us very far away from Professor Seeley's maxims and morals, his theoretical studies, his political philosophy, his political economy, and his desire to break the drowsy spell of narrative, and to set us all problems? I ask this question in no spirit of enmity towards these theoretical studies, nor do I doubt for one moment that the student of history proper, who has a turn in their directions, will find his pursuit made only the more fascinating the more he studies them--just as a little botany is said to add to the charm of a country walk; but--and surely the assertion is not necessarily paradoxical--these studies ought not to be allowed to disfigure the free-flowing outline of the historical Muse, or to thicken her clear utterance, which in her higher moods chants an epic, and in her ordinary moods recites a narrative which need not be drowsy.

As for maxims, we all of us have our 'little hoard of maxims' wherewith to preach down our hearts and justify anything shabby we may have done; but the less we import their cheap wisdom into history the better. The author of the Expansion of England will probably agree with Burke in thinking that 'a great empire and little minds go ill together,' and so, surely, a fortiori, must a mighty universe and any possible maxim. There have been plenty of brave historical maxims before Professor Seeley's, though only Lord Bolingbroke's has had the good luck to become itself historical. {2} And as for theories, Professor Flint, a very learned writer, has been at the pains to enumerate fourteen French and thirteen German philosophies of history current (though some, I expect, never ran either fast or far) since the revival of learning.

Footnote:

{2} 'I will answer you by quoting what I have read somewhere or other, in Dionysius Halicarnassensis I think, that history is philosophy teaching by examples.' See Lord Bolingbroke's Second Letter on the Study and Use of History.

We are (are we not?) in these days in no little danger of being philosophy-ridden, and of losing our love for facts simply as facts. So long as Carlyle lived the concrete had a representative, the strength of whose epithets sufficed, if not to keep the philosophers in awe, at least to supply their opponents with stones. But now it is different. Carlyle is no more a model historian than is Shakspeare a model dramatist. The merest tyro can count the faults of either on his clumsy fingers. That born critic, the late Sir George Lewis, had barely completed his tenth year before he was able, in a letter to his mother, to point out to her the essentially faulty structure of Hamlet, and many a duller wit, a decade or two later in his existence, has come to the conclusion that Frederick the Great is far too long. But whatever were Carlyle's faults, his historical method was superbly naturalistic. Have we a historian left us so honestly possessed as he was with the genuine historical instinct, the true enthusiasm to know what happened; or one half so fond of a story for its own sake, or so in love with things, not for what they were, but simply because they were? 'What wonderful things are events!' wrote Lord Beaconsfield in Coningsby; 'the least are of greater importance than the most sublime and comprehensive speculations.' To say this is to go perhaps too far; certainly it is to go farther than Carlyle, who none the less was in sympathy with the remark; for he also worshipped events, believing as he did that but for the breath of God's mouth they never would have been events at all. We thus find him always treating even comparatively insignificant facts with a measure of reverence, and handling them lovingly, as does a book-hunter the shabbiest pamphlet in his collection. We have only to think of Carlyle's essay on the Diamond Necklace to fill our minds with his qualifications for the proud office of the historian. Were that inimitable piece of workmanship to be submitted to the criticisms of the new scientific school, we doubt whether it would be so much as classed, whilst the celebrated description of the night before the battle of Dunbar in Cromwell, or any hundred scenes from the French Revolution, would, we expect, be catalogued as good examples of that degrading process whereby history fades into mere literature.

This is not a question, be it observed, of style. What is called a picturesque style is generally a great trial. Who was it who called Professor Masson's style Carlyle on wooden legs? What can be drearier than when a plain matter-of-fact writer attempts to be animated, and tries to make his characters live by the easy but futile expedient of writing about them in the present tense? What is wanted is a passion for facts; the style may be left to take care of itself. Let me name a historian who detested fine writing, and who never said to himself, 'Go to, I will make a description,' and who yet was dominated by a love for facts, whose one desire always was to know what happened, to dispel illusion, and establish the true account--Dr. S. R. Maitland, of the Lambeth Library, whose volumes entitled The Dark Ages and The Reformation are to history what Milton's Lycidas is said to be to poetry: if they do not interest you, your tastes are not historical.

The difference, we repeat, is not of style, but of aim. Is history a pageant or a philosophy? That eminent historian, Lord Macaulay, whose passion for letters and for 'mere literature' ennobled his whole life, has expressed himself in some places, I need scarcely add in a most forcible manner, in the same sense as Mr. Morley. In his well-known essay on history, contributed to the Edinburgh Review in 1828, we find him writing as follows: 'Facts are the mere dross of history. It is from the abstract truth which interpenetrates them, and lies latent amongst them like gold in the ore, that the mass derives its whole value.' And again: 'No past event has any intrinsic importance. The knowledge of it is valuable only as it leads us to form just calculations with respect to the future.' These are strong passages; but Lord Macaulay was a royal eclectic, and was quite out of sympathy with the majority of that brotherhood who are content to tone down their contradictories to the dull level of ineptitudes. Macaulay never toned down his contradictories, but, heightening everything all round, went on his sublime way, rejoicing like a strong man to run a race, and well knowing that he could give anybody five yards in fifty and win easily. It is, therefore, no surprise to find him, in the very essay in which he speaks so contemptuously of facts, laying on with his vigorous brush a celebrated purple patch I would gladly transfer to my own dull page were it not too long and too well known. A line or two taken at random will give its purport:

'A truly great historian would reclaim those materials the novelist has appropriated. We should not then have to look for the wars and votes of the Puritans in Clarendon and for their phraseology in Old Mortality, for one half of King James in Hume and for the other half in the Fortunes of Nigel. . . . Society would be shown from the highest to the lowest, from the royal cloth of state to the den of the outlaw, from the throne of the legate to the chimney-corner where the begging friar regaled himself. Palmers, minstrels, crusaders, the stately monastery with the good cheer in its refectory, and the tournament with the heralds and ladies, the trumpets and the cloth of gold, would give truth and life to the representation.' It is difficult to see what abstract truth interpenetrates the cheer of the refectory, or what just calculations with respect to the future even an upholsterer could draw from a cloth, either of state or of gold; whilst most people will admit that, when the brilliant essayist a few years later set himself to compose his own magnificent history, so far as he interpenetrated it with the abstract truths of Whiggism, and calculated that the future would be satisfied with the first Reform Bill, he did ill and guessed wrong.

To reconcile Macaulay's utterances on this subject is beyond my powers, but of two things I am satisfied: the first is that, were he to come to life again, a good many of us would be more careful than we are how we write about him; and the second is that, on the happening of the same event, he would be found protesting against the threatened domination of all things by scientific theory. A Western American, who was once compelled to spend some days in Boston, was accustomed in after-life to describe that seat of polite learning to his horrified companions in California as a city in whose streets Respectability stalked unchecked. This is just what philosophical theories are doing amongst us, and a decent person can hardly venture abroad without one, though it does not much matter which one. Everybody is expected to have 'a system of philosophy with principles coherent, interdependent, subordinate, and derivative,' and to be able to account for everything, even for things it used not to be thought sensible to believe in, like ghosts and haunted houses. Keats remarks in one of his letters with great admiration upon what he christens Shakspeare's 'negative capability,' meaning thereby Shakspeare's habit of complaisant observation from outside of theory, and his keen enjoyment of the unexplained facts of life. He did not pour himself out in every strife. We have but little of this negative capability. The ruddy qualities of delightfulness, of pleasantness, are all 'sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.' The varied elements of life--the


'Murmur of living,
Stir of existence,
Soul of the world!'


seem to be fading from literature. Pure literary enthusiasm sheds but few rays. To be lively is to be flippant, and epigram is dubbed paradox.

That many people appear to like a drab-coloured world hung round with dusky shreds of philosophy is sufficiently obvious. These persons find any relaxation they may require from a too severe course of theories, religious, political, social, or now, alas! historical, in the novels of Mr. W. D. Howells, an American gentleman who has not been allowed to forget that he once asserted of fiction what Professor Seeley would be glad to be able to assert of history, that the drowsy spell of narrative has been broken. We are to look for no more Sir Walters, no more Thackerays, no more Dickens. The stories have all been told. Plots are exploded. Incident is over. In moods of dejection these dark sayings seemed only too true. Shakspeare's saddest of sad lines rose to one's lips:

'My grief lies onward and my joy behind.'
Behind us are Ivanhoe and Guy Mannering, Pendennis and The Virginians, Pecksniff and Micawber. In front of us stretch a never-ending series, a dreary vista of Foregone Conclusions, Counterfeit Presentments, and Undiscovered Countries. But the darkest watch of the night is the one before the dawn, and relief is often nearest us when we least expect it. All this gloomy nonsense was suddenly dispelled, and the fact that really and truly, and behind this philosophical arras, we were all inwardly ravening for stories was most satisfactorily established by the incontinent manner in which we flung ourselves into the arms of Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, to whom we could almost have raised a statue in the market-place for having written Treasure Island.

But to return to history. The interests of our poor human life, which seems to become duller every day, require that the fields of history should be kept for ever unenclosed, and be a free breathing-place for a pallid population well-nigh stifled with the fumes of philosophy.

Were we, imaginatively, to propel ourselves forward to the middle of the next century, and to fancy a well-equipped historian armed with the digested learning of Gibbon, endowed with the eye of Carlyle, and say one- fifteenth of his humour (even then a dangerous allotment in a dull world), the moral gravity of Dr. Arnold, the critical sympathy of Sainte- Beuve, and the style of Dr. Newman, approaching the period through which we have lived, should we desire this talented mortal to encumber himself with a theory into which to thrust all our doings as we toss clothes into a portmanteau; to set himself to extract the essence of some new political philosophy, capable of being applied to the practical politics of his own day, or to busy himself with problems or economics? To us personally, of course, it is a matter of indifference how the historians of the twentieth century conduct themselves; but ought not our altruism to bear the strain of a hope that at least one of the band may avoid all these things, and, leaving political philosophy to the political philosopher and political economy to the political economist, remember that the first, if not the last, duty of the historian is to narrate, to supply the text not the comment, the subject not the sermon, and proceed to tell our grandchildren and remoter issue the story of our lives? The clash of arms will resound through his pages as musically as ever it does through those of the elder historians as he tells of the encounter between the Northern and Southern States of America, in which Right and Might, those great twin-brethren, fought side by side; but Romance, that ancient parasite, clung affectionately with her tendril-hands to the mouldering walls of an ancient wrong, thus enabling the historian, whilst awarding the victor's palm to General Grant, to write kindly of the lost cause, dear to the heart of a nobler and more chivalrous man, General Lee, of the Virginian army. And again, is it not almost possible to envy the historian to whom will belong the task of writing with full information, and all the advantage of the true historic distance, the history of that series of struggles and heroisms, of plots and counter- plots, of crimes and counter-crimes, resulting in the freedom of Italy, and of telling to a world, eager to listen, the life-story of Joseph Mazzini?


'Of God nor man was ever this thing said,
That he could give
Life back to her who gave him, whence his dead
Mother might live.
But this man found his mother dead and slain,
With fast sealed eyes,
And bade the dead rise up and live again,
And she did rise.'


Nor will our imaginary historian be unmindful of Cavour, or fail to thrill his readers by telling them how, when the great Italian statesman, with many sins upon his conscience, lay in the very grasp of death, he interrupted the priests, busy at their work of intercession, almost roughly, with the exclamation, 'Pray not for me.' 'Pray for Italy!' whilst if he be one who has a turn for that ironical pastime, the dissection of a king, the curious character, and muddle of motives, calling itself Carlo Alberto, will afford him material for at least two paragraphs of subtle interest. Lastly, if our historian is ambitious of a larger canvas and of deeper colours, what is there to prevent him, bracing himself to the task,--


'As when some mighty painter dips
His pencil in the hues of earthquake and eclipse,'


from writing the epitaph of the Napoleonic legend?

But all this time I hear Professor Seeley whispering in my ear, 'What is this but the old literary groove leading to no trustworthy knowledge?' If by trustworthy knowledge is meant demonstrable conclusions, capable of being expressed in terms at once exact and final, trustworthy knowledge is not to be gained from the witness of history, whose testimony none the less must be received, weighed, and taken into account. Truly observes Carlyle: 'If history is philosophy teaching by examples, the writer fitted to compose history is hitherto an unknown man. Better were it that mere earthly historians should lower such pretensions, and, aiming only at some picture of the thing acted, which picture itself will be but a poor approximation, leave the inscrutable purport of them an acknowledged secret.' 'Some picture of the thing acted.' Here we behold the task of the historian; nor is it an idle, fruitless task. Science is not the only, or the chief source of knowledge. The Iliad, Shakspeare's plays, have taught the world more than the Politics of Aristotle or the Novum Organum of Bacon.

Facts are not the dross of history, but the true metal, and the historian is a worker in that metal. He has nothing to do with abstract truth, or with practical politics, or with forecasts of the future. A worker in metal he is, and has certainly plenty of what Lord Bacon used to call 'stuff' to work upon; but if he is to be a great historian, and not a mere chronicler, he must be an artist as well as an artisan, and have something of the spirit which animated such a man as Francesco Francia of Bologna, now only famous as a painter, but in his own day equally celebrated as a worker in gold, and whose practice it was to sign his pictures with the word Goldsmith after his name, whilst he engraved Painter on his golden crucifixes.

The true historian, therefore, seeking to compose a true picture of the thing acted, must collect facts, select facts, and combine facts. Methods will differ, styles will differ. Nobody ever does anything exactly like anybody else; but the end in view is generally the same, and the historian's end is truthful narration. Maxims he will have, if he is wise, never a one; and as for a moral, if he tell his story well, it will need none; if he tell it ill, it will deserve none.

The stream of narrative flowing swiftly, as it does, over the jagged rocks of human destiny, must often be turbulent and tossed; it is, therefore, all the more the duty of every good citizen to keep it as undefiled as possible, and to do what in him lies to prevent peripatetic philosophers on the banks from throwing their theories into it, either dead ones to decay, or living ones to drown. Let the philosophers ventilate their theories, construct their blow-holes, extract their essences, discuss their maxims, and point their morals as much as they will; but let them do so apart. History must not lose her Muse, or 'take to her bosom doubts, queries, essays, dissertations, some of which ought to go before her, some to follow, and all to stand apart.' Let us at all events secure our narrative first--sermons and philosophy the day after.


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Muse Of History

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