Jack London is known as a literary giant, but he was also an avid reader of many different genres. His library contained over 5,000 books and his knowledge on the subject matter ranged from economics to zoology. The author primarily focused on survival during his life-long journey around the world and wrote novels with protagonists that embodied this personality trait in one way or another. In addition to being written by Jack London himself, these influential books include “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair which depicts poor working conditions for immigrants in America at the turn of the century and “Robinson Crusoe,” about how man must overcome extreme odds when pushed out onto an island alone without any supplies.,
The “nearest library to me” is a place where it is possible to find books that have influenced many authors. The nearest library in my area is the Oakland Public Library.
Welcome back to our series on great men’s libraries.
Even though his life was just half as long as others, Jack London had one of the most remarkable and unusual lives in history. By the age of 17, he had cruised the Pacific as a seal hunter and traversed San Francisco Bay as “Prince of the Oyster Pirates.” By the age of 21, he had traveled across North America by foot, train, and steamer, prospecting for gold in the Klondike. By the age of 24, he had established himself as a well-known author and had been dubbed the “American Kipling.” At the age of 27, he penned the worldwide classic The Call of the Wild, became a war reporter at the age of 28, became America’s highest-paid writer at the age of 30, and set sail across the globe at the age of 31. He had created a ranch and written 200 short stories, 400 non-fiction articles, and 20 novels by the time he died at the age of 40.
London’s combustible life trajectory had as much to do with his wild, driven thumos as his sensitive, inquiring mind, according to The San Francisco Examiner, who described him as having “instincts of a caveman and ambitions of a poet,” and his wife Charmian as being both “Doer and Thinker.” Indeed, the latter’s experiences were inspired, assisted, and accompanied by the former, particularly when it came to his love of literature.
Books as Entices to Try New Things
I’m an omnivore. I read everything and anything I can get my hands on. —London, Jack
Books were the first to expose a young Jack London to new vistas — both in terms of exotic physical destinations he might visit and professional heights he could attain — that were beyond the financial and emotional constraints of his upbringing.
When he was eight years old, he came upon a ragged copy of Ouida’s Signa and decided to read it (the pseudonym of English novelist Maria Louise Rame). Despite the fact that the book’s last portion was vanished, he read and re-read what remained, which described the story of an Italian kid who overcomes adversity to become a great composer and violinist. “It instilled in me the desire to go beyond the skylines of my little California valley and opened up to me the possibilities of the world of art,” London said. In fact, it was to this star that I tied my child’s wagon.”
The discovery of the Oakland Public Library in London was equally revelatory. While his official education was sporadic and incomplete, he acquired a lifelong devotion to autodidactic learning inside the confines of this building. The library was operated by Ina Coolbrith (a literary star in her own right), who fostered and fuelled the nine-year-old patron’s bibliophilia. Later in life, when London was a success, he wrote her to say:
You know, you were the first person to ever commend me on my reading choices. I was a curious, thirsty, and hungry small boy, and one day in the library, I took out a book of Pizarro of Peru… You went out and fetched the book and stamped it for me. And when you presented it to me, you complimented me on my interest in such works. Proud! If you only knew how proud you made me with your remarks.
As a lonely youngster, the Oakland Public Library served as a haven and a second home for London. He spent as much time as he could there, checking out as many books as he could; when he hit the limit of what he could get under his own name, he had all of his family members apply for library cards, which he then utilized to get additional books. This is what he remembers from that time:
I read a wide range of topics, but my favorites are history and adventure, as well as classic travelogues and voyages. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings are when I read. I read in bed, at the table, while walking to and from school, and at recess while the other guys were playing.
When London’s status as a literary loner attracted the attention of a school bully who ridiculed him for being “a dam sissy,” Jack, despite being smaller than his foe, knocked him out with a strong blow to the nose. After that, the roughs at school stopped bothering him.
This was a pattern that London would repeat throughout his youth: he was strong and scrappy enough to drink and battle with the thugs that frequented the Oakland waterfront, where he would spend a growing amount of time. But he never gave up his love of reading, never stopped going to the library when he wasn’t hanging out in saloons, and never stopped believing that the larger world of ambition and adventure he found in books might be his for the taking.
Books as Adventure Companions
[Jack] seldom spent awake hours without a book or a verbal dispute putting pressure on his whirling mind. —Beautiful London
London’s fledgling reading habit was thwarted when he was obliged to work various jobs to help support his family when he was 10 years old. Despite this, he kept to his aim of reading “two good-sized novels a week,” even if it meant staying up until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., leaving him with just a few hours of sleep before getting up to start selling newspapers before school.
When London had to drop out of school at the age of 14 to work in a cannery for 16-20 hours a day, seven days a week, something had to go. Part of what encouraged Jack to look for more flexible methods to generate money was the fact that there were “no minutes here to be snatched for my cherished books.”
London became an oyster pirate at the age of 15, commanding a tiny boat in late-night attacks. London would retreat to the cabin of his boat after a night of surreptitiously looting portions of San Francisco Bay that had formerly been public but had since been transformed into private tidal farms, followed by lots of cavorting with his crew along the waterfront, to crack open his cherished books. This would mark the start of a new role for books — as continuous adventure companions — that would endure the rest of London’s life.
As a 17-year-old sailor, London traveled to the Bering Sea to hunt seals and packed a bag of literature with him, including Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and, most fittingly, Moby-Dick. London spent the winter in an abandoned mining camp in the Yukon reading to pass the time through the frigid, blizzard-filled weeks. The 21-year-old was remembered by his prospecting partner as a “strong, energetic guy, full of the love of living and getting the most out of life [who] quickly had located every book in camp and enthusiastically devoured every piece of reading matter he could obtain.”
When a thirty-something London sought to sail across the globe with Charmian later in life, he loaded the ship with a 500-volume collection that included works by Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Stopping in the Marquesas to view the setting of Melville’s Typee and on the island of Upolu in Samoa to see the gravesite of Stevenson, London made literary pilgrimages a conscious component of the voyage’s agenda. “I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see the grave of any other guy in the world,” London softly said Charmian as they turned to leave the monument, despite the fact that getting there took a strenuous journey up a jungle-covered mountain.
Books as Adventure Facilitators
There’s so much fantastic things to read and so little time. It makes me sad to think about how many hours I’ve spent on subpar work simply because I didn’t know any better. –London, Jack
In between his adventures, a young Jack London did stints in various, and variously exploitative, labor jobs, as well as seeing the lives of men who had been broken by the economic system as he tramped around the country, convinced him that his ticket out of an oppressive, impoverished life lay in his mind, not his body. Books were both a way out and a way up for him.
London realized after his return from the Klondike that he needed to attack those books in a more methodical manner than he had before. When a return to high school at the age of 19 didn’t work out, he opted to prepare for the University of California’s arduous entrance examinations, which were the only way in.
London made the commitment to absorb years of information in only three months, excitedly anticipating the Herculean task that lay ahead. He sat at a little table with a stack of books and studied for nineteen hours straight, seven days a week, in a small room at the rear of his parents’ home. “Never had the spirit of adventure enticed him more firmly than on this marvelous investigation of the world of the mind,” he wrote of his fictitious alter ego, Martin Eden, “Never had the spirit of adventure drawn him more strongly than on this amazing discovery of the realm of the mind.”
Jack crammed all he knew into his head: English, physics, arithmetic, and history. “His vigor was stressed close to bursting,” Charmian writes, as he went through chemical formulae and quadratic problems with little respite. He twitched his muscles… Even those steady sailor-eyes quivered and saw jumbled patches, but he won out, as he usually did in life.”
London received honors on the three-day admission examinations and was admitted to Berkeley. Despite this, he only stayed for a semester, concluding that college did not meet his expectations and that he could learn more via self-study than in a classroom.
Following that, London dedicated himself to pursuing a career as a writer. In between odd jobs, he wrote essays and articles in every genre imaginable and submitted them to every publication imaginable. However, all he got in return was a stack of rejection letters.
He saw the need to increase the quality of his writing and chose reading as the means to that end. He not only studied books on writing, such as Herbert Spencer’s Philosophy of Style, but he also delved into the works of literary greats past and present, including Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton, as well as modern favorites like Poe, Melville, and Kipling. He would not only read these and other novels, but he would also write down the passages (particularly Kipling’s) in order to further imbue his mind with their literary rhythms. He sought for the “principles that lay behind and underneath” the works of great writers in order to recombine them into a style that was fully unique and entirely his own by “unlearning and learning afresh.”
Jack maintained the same Herculean schedule he had used when preparing for the university entrance test in his quest to become a professional writer: 19 hours of work; five hours of sleep. Seven days a week, wash and repeat. He would write throughout the day, barely stopping to eat and read (and he would do the latter while engaged in the former, holding a fork in one hand and a book in the other). He’d go to the Oakland Public Library late at night and return to read the stacks of books he’d checked out. If he wasn’t writing, he was reading, and so on until his work was ultimately recognized by the public.
Books aided the accomplishment adventure, and the riches of success aided more adventures – via travel, farming, ranching, and other means.
The Jack London Library
While Wolf House was being constructed in Glen Ellen, CA, Jack moved into a cottage on the site and set up business in this study, which required “an orgy of book-arranging,” as Charmian recounted.
In my library, I value books in the same manner that a sea captain considers charts in his chart room. It is clearly impossible for a sea captain to remember all of the reefs, rocks, shoals, harbors, points, lighthouses, beacons, and buoys along all of the world’s coastlines; and no sea captain ever tries to store such a mass of information in his mind. He knows his way around the chartroom, and when he picks up a new coast, he pulls out the appropriate chart and has fast access to all relevant information. It should be the same with books. Just like the captain needs a well-equipped chart room, the student and thinker needs a well-equipped library and knowledge on how to use it.
I, for one, can never have too many books, and my novels can never cover too many topics. I may never get around to reading them all, but they’re always there, and I never know what exotic shore I’ll come across when sailing the seas of knowledge. –London, Jack
Given the importance of books in Jack London’s life, it’s no surprise that one of the things he looked forward to most when constructing Wolf House — his dream home — was being able to retreat to its large study, beneath which would sit a large library connected by a spiral staircase, where he could store his collection of 15,000 books (which was so large, it had until then been stockpiled in various locations).
London’s dream would never come true; Wolf House burned to the ruins only days before he and Charmian were to move there. But, thankfully, we still have a fair sense of many of the books that would have adorned the library’s shelves.
On one hand, we have the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin, who developed a worldview of stark realism and rational materialism in his youth — of life as a strictly biological matter of survival of the fittest — and on the other, we have the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin, who developed a worldview of stark realism and rational materialism in his youth — of life as a strictly biological matter of survival of the fittest On the opposite side of the room lies a book that has enthralled Jack in ways he hasn’t felt since finding those writers 20 years ago. “I am standing on the verge of an universe so new, so frightening, so marvelous, that I am almost terrified to gaze over into it,” London felt after reading Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious. “[Jack’s] response was a jolt of recognition,” writes his biographer Earle Labor, “because his ‘primordial vision’ — Jung’s word for this creative talent — had marked much of London’s greatest fiction from the outset.” London’s discovery of Jung rekindled his interest in myth, folklore, and spirit, igniting a period of revitalized creativity that was sadly cut short by his premature death.
Jack read a lot of novels in between these two bookends. Here’s a sample of them (along with some remarks from Tools of My Trade):
- Ouida’s Signa
- Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood
- Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby
- The full works of Rudyard Kipling, which he read “pretty steadily”
- Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
- The writings of Herbert Spencer
- Friedrich Nietzsche’s A Genealogy of Morals
- Karl Marx’s Das Kapital
- John Milton’s Paradise Lost was his travel companion on his first trip to the Yukon.
- “As well as other publications about the area… the Klondike was London’s biggest and most significant adventure and literary resource,” according to Harry de Windt’s Through the Gold Fields of Alaska.
- The entire works of Shakespeare
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Voices of the Night”
- Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book
- The writings of Alfred Lord Tennyson
- Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac
- The entire writings of Robert Louis Stevenson
- Ambrose Bierce’s Soldiers and Civilians is a collection of stories about soldiers and civilians.
- Ambrose Bierce’s The Cynic’s Word Book (eventually renamed The Devil’s Dictionary)
- Stephen Crane’s novel Black Riders
- Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract
- Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Paul Carus’ Philosophy Primer
- The Complete Hoyle by Foster (card game encyclopedia)
- The entire writings of Leo Tolstoy
- Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles
- The entire writings of Joseph Conrad (only near the end of his life did London feel worthy of writing letters to Conrad as a peer)
- Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail
- Edward Jesse’s Anecdotes of Dogs — “gave him with insight on canine behavior”
- Egerton Young’s My Dogs in the Northland — “provided him reliable data regarding the qualities of sled dogs”
- London was so taken by Elinor Glyn’s books that he wrote to the author, requesting signed copies.
- John Brooks’ The Social Unrest
- The plays of Henrik Ibsen
- William James Ghent’s Our Benevolent Feudalism
- Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus
- Annie Hale’s Rooseveltian Fact and Fable
- Nonfiction books by Oscar Wilde
- “It was the book that got us started planning our own voyage,” Charmian wrote after reading Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum.
- Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was read many times, including once by Charmian, who read it aloud to Jack.
- John Streeter’s The Fat of the Land — “particularly for knowledge on the best sort of hens to purchase, the appropriate hog cage, and other useful agricultural advice” while he was establishing his ranch.
- Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, for which he wrote an introduction
- William James’s The Will to Believe
- The writings of Thomas Carlyle
- The Martyrs’ Book by Foxe
- Geronimo’s Life Story was written by Geronimo.
- William Jevons’ Studies in Deductive Logic
- Edward Marston’s fishing for pleasure and catching it
- Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
- Herman Melville typed
- Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
- The entire works of Edgar Allan Poe
- The works of Matthew Arnold
- The writings of John Ruskin
- William Francis Waugh’s The Practice of Medicine
- “It is tremendous material,” London said of Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious; his copy had over 300 notations, more than any other in his collection.
Listen to my podcast with his biographer, Earle Labor, to discover more about Jack London’s life.
- jack london