What one Brit literati was reading a century ago
I see a lot of “Top 100” book lists on the Internet, and I always find them annoying, mostly because they give too much credit to recent books. As a fan of classic books, I don’t agree with those who act as if literature was invented 50 years ago. That’s why my interest was piqued when I came across this list of One Hundred Best Books from 1916, written by John Cowper Powys, an English poet, novelist, and literary critic. Powys opens the book with an essay on reading, which comes across just as pretentious as the very literary snobbery he’s criticizing. Far more successful is the thoughtful praise that Powys heaps upon the books within his list. The selections offer a taste of what books were hot topics among English-language readers a century ago.
Powys begins his list with some golden oldies, apparently in chronological order. He makes it from the Psalms of David to John Milton’s Paradise Lost in ten easy steps. He then proceeds along nationalistic lines, tearing through Germany (5 authors), Norway (Ibsen), Sweden (Strindberg), America (Emerson, Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, and Theodore Dreiser), Spain (Cervantes), France (8 authors), Italy (Gabriele d’Annunzio), and Russia (5 authors). Not surprisingly, Powys reserves half of the hundred for his British countrymen, proving once again the bias inherent in such lists. Though his list contains 100 books, Powys only covers 61 authors, some of whom are represented by more than one work. 19th-century English writer Walter Pater, far from a household name these days, scores a whopping five entries on the list, while Homer only gets one for the Odyssey (to hell with the Iliad, apparently). Henry James takes the cake with six. As expected for the era, it’s all white guys, except for two ladies (Jane Austen and Emily Brontë).
I’m sure if I were to compile such a list, mine would be just as biased and uneven as Powys’s, so I wasn’t too surprised by his idiosyncratic choices. As a fan of classic literature, I hoped that Powys would turn me on to some authors and works that I had never heard of or never would have thought of reading. To that end, he has introduced me to Hermann Sudermann (“the most remarkable of modern German writers”), Russian naturalist Mikhail Artsybashev, and a handful of his “modern” English contemporaries including Gilbert Cannan, Vincent O’Sullivan, Arnold Bennett, and the picturesquely named Oliver Onions. Will I actually follow up on any of Powys’s suggestions? Probably not, except for maybe the Russian guy. The overwhelmingly British cast was a bit off-putting. Nevertheless, I’m thankful that Powys’s list wasn’t just a rehash of the usual suspects, and I did manage to glean a bit of literary education.
Roughly the final quarter of the Kindle file consists of advertisements for other books from Powys’s publisher, G. Arnold Shaw, including several books by Powys himself. Though this was not an unusual practice for the time, it leads me to suspect that Powys’s list was published as a promotional pamphlet for said publishing company. Even so, the ads comprise an interesting list in and of themselves.
If you like old books, you might enjoy browsing through Powys’s One Hundred Best Books. I won’t endorse it wholeheartedly, but it’s free and it won’t take up much of your time. Skip the introductory essay and just go right to the list.
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