The impatient child is not grubbing for beauties, but pushing the siege; the women vex him with their delays, and their talking ... but all the while that he thus chafes at the pausing of the action, the strong vertical light of Homer’s poetry is blazing so full upon the people and things of the “Iliad,” that soon to the eyes of the child they grow familiar as his mother’s shawl....
It was not the recollection of school
nor college learning,
but the rapturous and earnest reading of my childhood,
which made me bend forward so longingly to the plains of Troy.
It is among the books then, and not among the readers, that we must do our selecting. But how? On what principle or principles?
Sometime in the days of my youth, a newspaper, “The Pall Mall Gazette,” then conducted by W. T. Stead, made a conscientious effort to solve the riddle by inviting a number of eminent men to compile lists of the Hundred Best Books. Now this invitation rested on a fallacy. Considering for a moment how personal a thing is Literature, you will promptly assure yourselves that there is—there can be—no such thing as the Hundred Best Books. If you yet incline to toy with the notion, carry it on and compile a list of the Hundred Second-best Books: nay, if you will, continue until you find yourself solemnly, with a brow corrugated by responsibility, weighing the claims (say) of Velleius Paterculus, Paul and Virginia and Mr Jorrocks to admission among the Hundred Tenth-best Books. There is, in fact no positive hierarchy among the classics. You cannot appraise the worth of Charles Lamb against the worth of Casaubon: the worth of Hesiod against the worth of Madame de Sevigne: the worth of Theophile Gautier against the worth of Dante or Thomas Hobbes or Macchiavelli or Jane Austen. They all wrote with pens, in ink, upon paper: but you no sooner pass beyond these resemblances than your comparison finds itself working in impari materia.
Also why should the Best Books be 100 in number, rather than 99 or 199? And under what conditions is a book a Best Book? There are moods in which we not only prefer Pickwick to the Rig-Vedas or Sakuntala, but find that it does us more good. In our day again I pay all respect to Messrs Dent’s “Everyman’s Library.” It was a large conception vigorously planned. But, in the nature of things, Everyman is going to arrive at a point beyond which he will find it more and more difficult to recognise himself: at a point, let us say, when Everyman, opening a new parcel, starts to doubt if, after all, it wouldn’t be money in his pocket to be Somebody Else.