One Hundred Best Books
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