Books and Reading – an Essay


Still Life With Books[This is taken from John Cowper Powys’ One Hundred Best Books.]

There is scarcely any question, the sudden explosion of which out of a clear sky, excites more charming perturbation in the mind of a man—professionally, as they say, “of letters”—than the question, so often tossed disdainfully off from young and ardent lips, as to “what one should read,” if one has—quite strangely and accidentally—read hitherto absolutely nothing at all.

To secure the privilege of being the purveyor of spiritual germination to such provocatively virgin soil, is for the moment so entirely exciting that all the great stiff images from the dusty museum of “standard authors,” seem to swim in a sort of blurred mist before our eyes, and even, some of them at least, to nod and beckon and put out their tongues. After a while, however, the shock of first excitement diminishing, that solemn goblin Responsibility lifts up its head, and though we bang at it and shoo it away, and perhaps lock it up, the pure sweet pleasure of our seductive enterprise, the “native hue,” as the poet says, of our “resolution” is henceforth “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” and the fine design robbed of its freshest dew.

As a matter of fact, much deeper contemplations and maturer ponderings, only tend, in the long run, to bring us back to our original starting-point. It is just this very bugbear of Responsibility which in the consciences and mouths of grown-up persons sends the bravest of our youth post-haste to confusion—so impinging and inexorable are the thing’s portentous horns. It is indeed after these maturer considerations that we manage to hit upon the right key really capable of impounding the obtrusive animal; the idea, namely, of indicating to our youthful questioner the importance of aesthetic austerity in these regions—an austerity not only no less exclusive, but far more exclusive than any mandate drawn from the Decalogue.

The necessary matter, in other words, at the beginning of such a tremendous adventure as this blowing wind into the sails of a newly built little schooner, or sometimes even of a poor rain-soaked harbor-rotten brig, bound for the Fortunate Islands, is the inspiration of the right mood, the right tone, the right temper, for the splendid voyage. It is not enough simply to say “acquire aesthetic severity.” With spoils so inexhaustible offered to us on every side, some more definite orientation is desirable. Such an orientation, limiting the enormous scope of the enterprise, within the sphere of the possible, can only be wisely found in a person’s own individual taste; but since such a taste is, obviously, in a measure “acquired,” the compiler of any list of books must endeavor, by a frank and almost shameless assertion of his taste, to rouse to a divergent reciprocity the latent taste, still embryotic, perhaps, and quite inchoate, of the young person anxious to make some sort of a start.  Such a neophyte in the long voyage—a voyage not without its reefs and shoals—will be much more stirringly provoked to steer with a bold firm hand, even by the angry reaction he may feel from such suggestions, than by a dull academic chart—professing tedious judicial impartiality—of all the continents, promontories, and islands, marked on the official map.

One does not trust youth enough, that is in short what is the matter with our educational method, in this part of it at least, which concerns “what one is to read.” One teases oneself too much, and one’s infants, too, poor darlings, with what might be called the “scholastic-veneration-cult”; the cult, namely, of becoming a superior person by reading the best authors. It comes back, after all, to what your young person emphatically is, in himself, independent of all this acquiring. If he has the responsive chord, the answering vibration, he may well get more imaginative stimulus from reading “Alice in Wonderland,” than from all the Upanishads and Niebelungenlieds in the world. It is a matter of the imagination, and to the question “What is one to read?” the best reply must always be the most personal:

“Whatever profoundly and permanently stimulates your imagination.” The list of books which follows in this volume constitutes in itself, in the mere perusal of the titles, such a potential stimulation. A reader who demands, for instance, why George Eliot is omitted, and Oliver Onions included; why Sophocles is excluded and Catullus admitted, is brought face to face with that essential right of personal choice in these high matters, which is not only the foundation of all thrilling interest in literature, but the very ground and soil of all-powerful literary creation. The secret of the art of literary taste, may it not be found to be nothing else than the secret of the art of life itself—I mean the capacity for discovering the real fatality, the real predestined direction of one’s intrinsic nature and the refusal, when this is found, to waste one’s energies in alien paths and irrelevant junketings?

A list of books of the kind appended here, becomes, by the very reason of its shameless subjectivity, a challenge to the intelligence perusing it—a challenge that is bound, in some degree or another, to fling such a reader back upon his own inveterate prejudices; to fling him back upon them with a sense that it is his affair reasonably to justify them.

From quite another point of view, however, might the appended list find its excuse—I mean as being a typical choice; in other words, the natural choice of a certain particular minority of minds, who, while disagreeing in most essentials, in this one important essential find themselves in singular harmony. And this minority of minds, of minds with the especial prejudices and predilections indicated in this list, undoubtedly has a real and definite existence; there are such people, and any list of books which they made would exclude the writers here excluded, and include the writers here included, though in particular instances, the motives of the choice might differ. For purely psychological reasons then—as a kind of human document in criticism, shall we say?–such a list comes to have its value; nor can the value be anything but enhanced by the obvious fact that in this particular company there are several quite prominent and popular writers, both ancient and modern, signalized, as it were, if not penalized, by their surprising absence. The niches of such venerated names do not exactly call aloud for occupancy, for they are emphatically filled by less popular figures; but they manifest a sufficient sense of incongruity to give the reader’s critical conscience the sort of jolt that is so salutary a mental stimulus. A further value might be discovered for our exclusive catalogue, in the interest of noting—and this interest might well appeal to those who would themselves have selected quite a different list—the curious way certain books and writers have of hanging inevitably together, and necessarily implying one another.

Thus it appears that the type of mind—it would be presumptuous to call it the best type of mind—which prefers Euripides to Sophocles, and Heine to Schiller, prefers also Emily Brontë to Charlotte Brontë, and Oliver Onions to Compton Mackenzie. Given the mind that in compiling such a list would at once drag in The Odyssey and The Psalms, and run hastily on to Sir Thomas Browne and Charles Lamb, we are instinctively conscious that when it reaches, with its arbitrary divining rod, our own unlucky age, it will skip quite lightly over Thackeray; wave an ambiguous hand in the direction of Meredith, and sit solemnly down to make elaborate mention of all the published works of Walter Pater, Thomas Hardy and Mr. Henry James.

It seems to me that nothing is more necessary, in regard to the advice to be given to young and ardent people, in the matter of their reading, than some sort of communication of the idea—and it is not an easy idea to convey—that there is in this affair a subtle fusion desirable between one’s natural indestructible prejudices, and a certain high authoritative standard; a standard which we may name, for want of a better word, “classical taste,” and which itself is the resultant amalgam of all the finest personal reactions of all the finest critical senses, winnowed out, as it were, and austerely purged, by the washing of the waves of time. It will be found, as a matter of fact, that this latter element in the motives of our choice works as a rule negatively rather than positively, while the positive and active force in our appreciations remains, as it ought to remain, our own inviolable and quite personal bias. The winnowed taste of the ages, acquired by us as a sort of second nature, warns us what to avoid, while our own nerves and palate, stimulated to an ever deepening subtlety, as our choice narrows itself down, tells us what passionately and spontaneously we must snatch up and enjoy.

It will be noted that in what we have tried to indicate as the only possible starting-point for adventurous criticism, there has been a constant assumption of a common ground between sensitive people; a common sensual and psychic language, so to speak, to which appeals may be made, and through which intelligent tokens may be exchanged. This common ground is not necessarily—one is reluctant to introduce metaphysical speculation—any hidden “law of beauty” or “principle of spiritual harmony.” It is, indeed, as far as we can ever know for certain, only “objective” in the sense of being essentially human; in the sense, that is, of being something that inevitably appeals to what, below temperamental differences, remains permanent and unchanging in us.

“Nature,” as Leonardo says, “is the mistress of the higher intelligences”; and Goethe, in his most oracular utterances, recalls us to the same truth. What imagination does, and what the personal vision of the individual artist does, is to deal successfully and masterfully with this “given,” this basic element. And this basic element, this permanent common ground, this universal human assumption, is just precisely what, in popular language, we call “Nature”; that substratum of objective reality in the appearances of things, which makes it possible for diversely constructed temperaments to make their differences effective and intelligible.

There could be no recognizable differences, no conversation, in fact, if, in the impossible hypothesis of the absence of any such common language, we all shouted at one another “in vacuo” and out of pure darkness. It is from their refusal to recognize the necessity for something at least relatively objective in what the individual imagination works upon, that certain among modern artists, if not among modern poets, bewilder and puzzle us. They have a right to make endless experiments—every original mind has that—but they cannot let go their hold on some sort of objective solidity without becoming inarticulate, without giving vent to such unrelated and incoherent cries as overtake one in the corridors of Bedlam. “Nature is the mistress of the higher intelligencies,” and though the individual imagination is at liberty to treat Nature with a certain creative contempt, it cannot afford to depart altogether from her, lest by relinquishing the common language between men and men, it should simply flap its wings in an enchanted circle, and utter sounds that are not so much different from other sounds, as outside the region where any sound carries an intelligible meaning.

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 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 Dostoyevsky, 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 Dostoyevsky 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 of our passion, but not wise are those who would seek to confine this fleeting intimation within the walls of reason or of system. It comes; it goes; it is; it is not. The Hundred Best Books did not bring it; the Hundred Best Books cannot take it away. Strangely and wonderfully it blends itself with those vague memories of what we have read, somewhere, sometime, and not always alone. Strangely and wonderfully it blends itself with those other moments when the best books in the world seem irrelevant, and all “culture” an impertinent intrusion; but however it comes and however it goes, it is the thing that makes our gravity ridiculous; our philosophy pedantic. It is the thing that gives to the “amusements” of the imagination that touch of burning fire; that breath of wider air; that taste of sharper salt, which, arriving when we least expect it, and least—heaven knows—deserve it, makes any final opinion upon the stuff of this world vain and false; and any condemnation of the opinions of others foolish and empty. It destroys our assurances as it alleviates our miseries, and in some unspeakable way, like a primrose growing on the edge of a sepulchre, it flings forth upon the heavy night, a fleeting signal, “Bon espoir y gist au fond!