Monday, 11 May 2015

One Hundred Best Books - John Cowper Powys

100 Best Books - John Cowper Powys
100 Best Books - John Cowper Powys

Powys, Cowper John. One Hundred Best Books With Commentary and an Essay on Books and Reading. New Delhi, Isha Books, 2013.


This brief post is about a little curious book that came to my hand. Modern readers would not be unfamiliar with listmania; this list was originally published in 1916 by the literary critic of the time. Not unusual at his time, naturally he was not only a critic, but also novelist, poet, lecturer, and philosopher.

I do admire people who are willing and are able to make such lists. It's a Herculean task that I confess unable to commit myself to, but it is always amusing to see what others' lists come to be.

Powys is emphatic that this is his personal list (in 1916, let me remind the reader), which is a very important consideration, and he puts it eloquently:
Lovers of books, like other infatuated lovers, best know they find in their exquisite obsession. 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! (14)

Talking about the personal relationship we have with our beloved books:
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-beloved 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 work," we do not love them because they help us here or help us there; or make us wiser of make us better; we love them because they are what they are, and we are what we are. (14)

I beg to disagree though; I do believe that books help us to go through difficult times, and, certainly, even the most trivial book can help make us wiser, given the right mood and circumstance. It would seem too much romanticism to pronounce anything like "we love them because they are what they are, and we are what we are."

Powys then continues into his romantic reverie:
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. (15)

These reflections do sound good in written words, but I doubt it would feel the same when carried out.

Now we come to our gem, namely the Maugham entry. I consider it quite an achievement, that Of Human Bondage got on the list after only a year of its publication:
95. W. Somerset Maugham. Of Human Bondage. In this remarkable book Mr. W. Somerset Maugham surpasses by a long distance the average novels of recent appearance. The portion of the book which deals with Paris, especially with that mad poet [lovely description of Cronshaw] there, who expounds the philosophy of the "Pattern," is as suggestive a piece of literature as any we have seen for half a dozen years.
The passage towards the end of the book on the subject of the genius of El Greco is also profoundly interesting; and the sentences which comment so gravely and beautifully upon the cry of the Christ, "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do," have a rare and most moving power. (62–3)

For those who are interested enough to read on, here is the full list:

100 Best Books List
100 Best Books List
100 Best Books List continued
100 Best Books List continued

I would surmise that my copy is a copy on demand. One wonders about the publication of a listmania back in 1916. It does make an interesting read historically, and for those who are interested in Powys.
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How to cite this:


100 Best Books at AbeBooks

3 comments :

  1. Fascinating historical curiosity. How did Stott miss that? It must be one of the earliest examples of critical praise lavished on "Of Human Bondage".

    I was very curious to see the complete list. A lot of Pater and Galsworthy, apparently they were still popular at the time. Only one play by Shakespeare, and that "Troilus and Cressida"?! Or did I get it wrong? No Hazlitt is, of course, unforgivable (considering that Lamb is included). Only one play by Oscar, and that by far his worst, is strange. But the guy insists that it's a personal list (which is true by default anyway), so for himself he is right. Very interesting to compare it with Maugham's opinions on what is worth reading by just about everybody.

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    1. I checked the Shakespeare entry:
      9. Shakespeare. In the Temple edition.
      It is time Shakespeare was read for the beauty of his poetry, and enjoyed without pedantry and with some imagination. The less usual and more cynical of his plays, such as Troilus, and Cressida, Measure for Measure and Timon of Athens, will be found to contain some very interesting commentaries upon life.
      The Shakespearean attitude of mind is quite a definite and articulate one, and one that can be, by slow degrees, acquired, even by persons who are not cultivated or clever. It is an attitude "compounded of many simples," and, like the melancholy of Jaques, it wraps us about "in a most humorous sadness." But the essential secret of Shakespeare's genius is best apprehended in the felicity of certain isolated passionate speeches, and in the magic of his songs.

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    2. Very fascinating entry. Really bold to recommend those plays as representative of Shakespeare.

      The point about appreciating Shakespeare even if one is not "cultivated or clever" is significant. I have written a harshly negative review of Lambs' adaptations for children and I have had it pointed out to me that children are more intelligent and can grasp most of the subtleties of the Bard. Balls! Understanding Shakespeare is not a matter of intelligence. It's a matter of experience. This is far more important than intellect. That's what children cannot have and that's why they should grow up first, and then read the Bard.

      I disagree with the last sentence, though. No, not even close. Isolated speeches and songs are no substitute for the complete character. The variety and depth of Will's characters is what makes him timeless, not the intellectual content of his poetry or its euphonious beauty. These are important assets, but in the final run, I think, they pale into insignificance compared to his people, their minds and their reactions to trials and tribulations most of us have to confront.

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