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!”
1. The psalms of David.
The Psalms remain, whether in the Latin version or in the authorized English translation, the most pathetic and poignant, as well as the most noble and dignified of all poetic literature. The rarest spirits of our race will always return to them at every epoch in their lives for consolation, for support and for repose.
2. Homer. The Odyssey. Butcher and Lang’s Prose Translation.
The Odyssey must continue to appeal to adventurous persons more powerfully than any other of the ancient stories because, blent with the classic quality of its pure Greek style, there can be found in it that magical element of thrilling romance, which belongs not to one age, but to all time.