For the thirty years that I have spoken weekly to many hundreds of readers of The San Francisco Chronicle through its book review columns, it has been my constant aim to preach the doctrine of the importance of cultivating the habit of reading good books, as the chief resource in time of trouble or sickness … But it never occurred to me that this habit would finally come to mean the only thing that makes life worth living.
So wrote George Hamlin Fitch (1852-1925) in the opening paragraph of Comfort Found in Good Old Books, a book he wrote in 1910 when his own son suddenly died:
Cut off as I have been from domestic life, without a home for over fifteen years, my relations with my son Harold were not those of the stern parent and the timid son. Rather it was the relation of elder brother and younger brother.
Hence, when only ten days ago this close and tender association of many years was broken by death—swift and wholly unexpected, as a bolt from cloudless skies—it seemed to me for a few hours as if the keystone of the arch of my life had fallen and everything lay heaped in ugly ruin. I had waited for him on that Friday afternoon [30 September 1910] until six o’clock. Friday is my day off, my one holiday in a week of hard work, when my son always dined with me and then accompanied me to the theater or other entertainment. When he did not appear at six I left a note saying I had gone to our usual restaurant. That dinner I ate alone. When I returned in an hour it was to be met with the news that Harold lay cold in death at the very time I wrote the note that his eyes would never see.
And so, in this roundabout way, I come back to my library shelves, to urge upon you who now are wrapped warm in domestic life and love to provide against the time when you may be cut off in a day from the companionship that makes life precious. Take heed and guard against the hour that may find you forlorn and unprotected against death’s malignant hand. Cultivate the great worthies of literature, even if this means neglect of the latest magazine or of the newest sensational romance. Be content to confess ignorance of the ephemeral books that will be forgotten in a single half year, so that you may spend your leisure hours in genial converse with the great writers of all time.
When many of Fitch’s readers asked him to list the great books that had proved so comforting to him in his sorrow, he wrote this book. It proved a good seller for Paul Elder and was reprinted several times.
Fitch wrote several other books for Elder, including The Critic in the Orient, The Critic in the Occident, Great Spiritual Writers of America, and Modern English Books of Power.