One Hun­dred Best Books

New England Review - - Rediscoveries - John Cow­per Powys

The ab­surd idea that one gets wise by read­ing books is prob­a­bly at the bot­tom of the abom­inable pedantry that thrusts so many tire­some pieces of an­tiq­uity down the throats of youth. There is no tal­is­man for get­ting wise—some of the wis­est in the world never open a book, and yet their na­tive wit, so heav­enly-free from “cul­ture,” would serve to chal­lenge Voltaire. Lovers of books, like other in­fat­u­ated lovers, best know the ac­count they find in their ex­quis­ite ob­ses­sions. None of the ex­pla­na­tions they give seem to cover the field of their en­joy­ment. The thing is a pas­sion; a sort of del­i­cate mad­ness, and like other pas­sions, quite un­in­tel­li­gi­ble to those who are out­side. Per­sons who read for the pur­pose of mak­ing a suc­cess of their added eru­di­tion, or the bet­ter to adapt them­selves—what a phrase!—to their “life’s work,” are, to my think­ing, like the wretches who throw flow­ers into graves. What sac­ri­lege, to trail the re­luc­tances and coy­nesses, the shy­nesses and sweet re­serves of these “furtivi amores” at the heels of a wretched am­bi­tion to be “cul­ti­vated” or learned, or to “get on” in the world!

Like the king­dom of heaven and all other high and sa­cred things, the choic­est sorts of books only re­veal the per­fume of their rare essence to those who love them for them­selves in pure dis­in­ter­est­ed­ness. Of course they “mix in,” these best-loved au­thors, with ev­ery ex­pe­ri­ence we en­counter; they throw around places, hours, sit­u­a­tions, oc­ca­sions, a quite spe­cial glam­our of their own, just as one’s more hu­man de­vo­tions do; but though they float, like a dif­fused aroma, round ev­ery cir­cum­stance of our days, and may even make tol­er­a­ble the oth­er­wise in­tol­er­a­ble hours of our im­per­ti­nent “life’s work,” we do not love them be­cause they help us here or help us there; or make us wiser or make us bet­ter; we love them be­cause they are what they are, and we are what we are; we love them, in fact, for the beau­ti­ful rea­son which the au­thor of that noble book—a book not in our present list, by the way, be­cause of some­thing ob­sti­nately tough and te­dious in him—i mean Mon­taigne’s Es­says— loved his sweet friend Eti­enne.

Any other com­merce be­tween books and their read­ers smacks of Ba­co­nian “fruits” and Univer­sity lec­tures. It is a pros­ti­tu­tion of plea­sure to profit.

As with all the rare things in life, the most del­i­cate fla­vor of our plea­sure is found not ex­actly and pre­cisely in the ac­tual taste of the au­thor him­self; not, I mean, in the snatch­ing of huge bites out of him, but in the fra­grance of an­tic­i­pa­tion; in the dreamy so­lic­i­ta­tions of in­de­scrib­able af­ter­thoughts; in those “airy tongues that syl­la­ble men’s names” on the “sands and shores” of the re­mote mar­gins of our con­scious­ness. How de­li­cious a plea­sure there is in

John Cow­per Powys

car­ry­ing about with us wher­ever we go a new book or a new trans­la­tion from the pen of our es­pe­cial master! We need not open it; we need not read it for days; but it is there—there to be ca­ressed and to ca­ress—when ev­ery­thing is pro­pi­tious, and the pro­fane voices are hushed.

I sup­pose, to take an in­stance that has for my­self a pe­cu­liar ap­peal, the present edi­tion—“brought out” by the ex­cel­lent house of Macmil­lan—of the great Dos­toievsky, is pro­duc­ing even now in the sen­si­bil­ity of all sorts and con­di­tions of queer read­ers, a thrilling se­ries of re­cur­rent plea­sures, like the in­ter­mit­tent vis­its of one’s well-beloved.

Would to God the mor­tal days of ge­niuses like Dos­toievsky could be so ex­tended that for all the years of one’s life, one would have such works, still not quite fin­ished, in one’s lucky hands!

I some­times doubt whether these stick­lers for “the art of con­den­sa­tion” are re­ally lovers of books at all. For my­self, I would class their cursed short sto­ries with their teas­ing “econ­omy of ma­te­rial,” as they call it, with those “books that are no books,” those checker boards and moral trea­tises which used to an­noy Elia so.

Yes, I have a sneak­ing feel­ing that all this mod­ern fuss about “art” and the “cre­ative vi­sion” and “the pro­jec­tion of vi­su­al­ized im­ages,” is the itch­ing vice of quite a dif­fer­ent class of peo­ple, from those who, in the old, sweet, epi­curean way, loved to loi­ter through huge di­gres­sive books, with the am­ple un­premed­i­tated en­joy­ment of leisurely trav­el­ers way­far­ing along a won­der­ful road. How many luck­less in­no­cents have teased and fret­ted their minds into a forced ap­pre­ci­a­tion of that artis­tic ogre Flaubert, and his la­bo­ri­ous pur­suit of his pre­cious “ex­act word,” when they might have been pleas­antly sail­ing down Ra­belais’ rich stream of im­mor­tal nec­tar, or sweetly hug­ging them­selves over the lovely mis­chievous­ness of Tris­tram Shandy! But one must be tol­er­ant; one must make al­lowances. The world of books is no pu­ri­tan­i­cal bour­geois-rid­den democ­racy; it is a large free coun­try, a great Pan­ta­gru­elian Utopia, ruled by noble kings.

Our “One Hun­dred Best Books” need not be yours, nor yours ours; the es­sen­tial thing is that in this brief in­ter­val be­tween dark­ness and dark­ness, which we call our life, we should be thrillingly and pas­sion­ately amused; in­no­cently, if so it can be ar­ranged—and what bet­ter than books lends it­self to that?— and harm­lessly, too, let us hope, God help us, but at any rate, amused, for the only un­par­don­able sin is the sin of tak­ing this pass­ing world too gravely. Our trea­sure is not here; it is in the king­dom of heaven, and the king­dom of heaven is Imag­i­na­tion. Imag­i­na­tion! How all other ways of es­cape from what is medi­ocre in our tan­gled lives grow pale be­side that high and burn­ing star!

With Imag­i­na­tion to help us we can make some­thing of our days, some­thing of the drama of this con­fused tur­moil, and per­haps, af­ter all—who can tell?— there is more in it than mere “amuse­ment.” Once and again, as we pause in our read­ing, there comes a breath, a whis­per, a ru­mor, of some­thing else; of some­thing over and above that “eter­nal now” which is the wis­est pre­oc­cu­pa­tion

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