our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness Phaedr. 244a

2011/04/30

Oscar Wilde in the PALL MALL GAZETTE on "The Best Hundred Books by the Best Hundred Judges":

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:

1. Books to read, such as Cicero's LETTERS, Suetonius, Vasari's LIVES OF THE PAINTERS, the AUTOBIOGRAPHY of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon's MEMOIRS, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote's HISTORY OF GREECE.

2. Books to reread, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.

3. Books not to read at all, such as Thompson's SEASONS, Rogers's ITALY, Paley's EVIDENCES, all the Fathers except Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the ESSAY ON LIBERTY, all Voltaire's plays without any exception, Butler's ANALOGY, Grant's ARISTOTLE, Hume's ENGLAND, Lewes's HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY, all argumentative books & all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer... But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension scheme.

Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much it has no time to admire, and writes so much it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula "The Worst Hundred Books" and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.

After expressing these views I suppose I should not offer any suggestions...but I hope you will allow me the pleasure of being inconsistent, as I am anxious to put in a claim for a book that has been strangely omitted by most of the excellent judges who have contributed to your columns. I mean the GREEK ANTHOLOGY. The beautiful poems contained in this collection seem to me to hold the same position with regard to Greek dramatic literature as do the delicate little figurines of Tanagra to the Pheidian marbles, and to be quite as necessary for complete understanding of the Greek spirit.

I am also amazed to find that Edgar Allan Poe has been passed over. Surely this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression deserves a place? If, in order to make room for him, it be necassary to elbow out someone else, I should elbow out Southey, and I think Baudelaire might be most advantageously substituted for Keble. No doubt both in THE CURSE OF KEHAMA and in THE CHRISTIAN YEAR there are poetic qualities of a certain kind, but absolute catholicity of taste is not without its dangers. It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.