On July 17, 1771, Robert Skipwith wrote to Thomas Jefferson requesting recommendations for his personal library. "I would have them suited to the capacity of a common reader who understands but little of the classicks and who has not leisure for any intricate or tedious study," Skipwith explained. "Let them be improving as well as amusing .... Let them amount to about five and twenty pounds sterling, or, if you think proper, to thirty pounds."1
Jefferson wrote Skipwith back on August 3, 1771, with a "List of Books for a Private Library." Finding himself unable to adhere strictly to Skipwith's exacting request, Jefferson produced a comprehensive list without regard for cost. "I sat down with a design of executing your request to form a catalogue of books amounting to about 30. lib. sterl. but could by no means satisfy myself with any partial choice I could make," Jefferson confessed. "Thinking therefore it might be as agreeable to you, I have framed such a general collection as I think you would wish, and might in time find convenient, to procure."2 Jefferson produced a list with more than 100 titles, including many multi-volumed works, that ranged across the fine arts, history, religion, politics, trade, and "natural philosophy."
Robert Skipwith's request for a choice of books was the first of several such requests made to Thomas Jefferson. In subsequent years, James Monroe and Joseph Cabell were among the other young men who looked to Jefferson for similar guidance.3
1. Skipwith to Jefferson, July 17, 1771, in PTJ, 1:74-75. Transcription available at Founders Online. Skipwith was married to Tabitha Wayles, half-sister of Jefferson's bride-to-be Martha Wayles Skelton.
2. Jefferson to Skipwith, August 3, 1771, in PTJ, 1:76-81. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. See Jefferson to Monroe, October 5, 1781, in PTJ, 6:127. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also A Course of Reading for Joseph C. Cabell, September 1800, in PTJ, 32:176-81. Transcription available at Founders Online.