One Hundred Best Books With Commentary And Essay On Books And Reading by John Cowper Powys
How do you determine the best books? What sort of criteria would you use? In our age where people have varying opinions and definitions about what it is that makes literature (or anything) good and worth remembering, it can seem to be a bit cheeky or even presumptuous to claim to know or be able to state what is the best of something, but this book does a good job of making that accusation as harmless as possible. A large part of this book’s charm comes from the fact that although the author is no one who is necessarily very important, he clearly has a wide appreciation of literature, at least within the canon of Western literature, and is able to respect and appreciate the Bible, Greek Philosophy, and Latin classics. He is able to recommend novels, plays, and poems, and his taste includes some very thoughtful choices for books that were written in the contemporary period, at least some of the time showing a prescient understanding of what would still be considered to be good in the future. And he not only recommends these books but also gives the reader a sense of how much it would cost to build a collection of these great books.
The contents of this book are mercifully brief and can be divided into three parts. The first part of the book is an essay on books and reading and it assumes that the reader is someone who is going to be interested in imagining themselves as taking one hundred books, or at least the writings of one hundred authors, on a trip to a desert island where those would be the reading materials for the rest of the reader’s life. The second part of the book then consists of short essays about the one hundred authors/books that were chosen as being the best books. Admittedly, the author has considerable taste, including the Bible, plenty of Latin classics (which he strangely assumes the reader will be able to read in their original), a great many works in French, Italian, German, and Russian, as well as novels that were published shortly before this book was written in 1916, including the wonderful Of Human Bondage as well as the writings of Hardy and James, which are certainly well worth recommending. The third part of the book then provides a price for these books that seems way too low given contemporary book prices and the fact that some of these books are out of print and probably have been for almost a century.
I am not sure if the author was connected to the Everyman Library and their low-priced and mass-published selection of high quality literature from the 20th century, but the fact that this author so strongly recommended them more than a century ago and I still enjoy reading that series is something that I consider to be impressive and to demonstrate the worth of this collection of materials. It would be considerably more expensive to buy the collection of book that the author talks about even if such books were readily available. Yet the fact that the author went to the effort of expensing out the collection he recommended for readers is impressive and well worth appreciating. The author’s taste is generally sound, and is balanced enough that he even recognizes Jane Austen’s greatness in showing the maternal wit and wisdom of the spinster aunt, as her books even as he celebrates works that have a variety of perspectives and approaches. This is a truly diverse selection in the best way, and one only wishes the author were more familiar with the best of non-Western literature to add to this list.