The worst hundred books

Oscar Wilde’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette on the subject of “The Best Hundred Books,” February 8, 1886, from Thomas Wright, Oscar’s Books: A Journey around the Library of Oscar Wilde (2008):

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 re-read, 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 Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. 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 and 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 of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. 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, that it has no time to admire, and writes so much, that 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 at all with regard to ‘The Best Hundred Books,’ 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 Phidian marbles, and to be quite as necessary for the 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 necessary to elbow out some one else, I should elbow out Southey, and I think that 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.

Quite an everyday occurrence

from Huygens and Barrow, Newton and Hooke, Vladimir Arnold, translated by Eric J. F. Primrose (1989):

Hooke was a poor man and began work as an assistant to Boyle (who is now well known thanks to the Boyle-Mariotte law discovered by Hooke). Subsequently Hooke began working in the recently established Royal Society (that is, the English Academy of Sciences) as Curator. The duties of the Curator of the Royal Society were very onerous. According to his contract, at every session of the Society (and they occurred every week except for the summer vacation) he had to demonstrate three or four experiments proving the new laws of nature.

Hooke held the post of Curator for forty years, and all that time he carried out his duties thoroughly. Of course, there was no condition in the contract that all the laws to be demonstrated had to be devised by him. He was allowed to read books, correspond with other scientists, and to be interested in their discoveries. He was only required to verify whether their statements were true and to convince the Royal Society that some law was reliably established. For this it was necessary to prove this law experimentally and demonstrate the appropriate experiment. This was Hooke’s official activity.

[…]

At that time it was easy to carry out fundamental discoveries, and large numbers of them were carried out. Huygens, for example, improved the telescope, looked at Saturn and discovered its ring, and Hooke discovered the red spot on Jupiter. At that time discoveries were not unusual events, they were not registered, not patented, as they are now, they were quite an everyday occurrence. (This was the case not only in the natural sciences. Mathematical discoveries at that time also poured forth as if from a horn of plenty.)

But Hooke never had enough time to dwell on any of his discoveries and develop it in detail, since in the following week he needed to demonstrate new laws. So in the whole manifold of Hooke’s achievements his discoveries appeared somewhat incomplete, and sometimes when he was in a hurry he made assertions that he could not justify accurately and with mathematical rigour.

[…]

Holding the chair at Cambridge, Newton earned considerably more (200 pounds a year), and the farm that he had inherited, which he leased out and where the famous apple tree grew, gave him roughly the same income. Despite the fact that Newton was quite well off, he did not want to spend any money on the publication of the book, so he sent the Principia to the Royal Society, which decided to publish the book at its own expense. But the Society had no money, so the manuscript lay there until Halley (who was the son of a rich soap manufacturer) published it on his own account. Halley took on himself all the trouble of publishing the book, and even read the proofs himself. Newton, in correspondence at this time, called it “Your book”…

What has not been (properly) talked about

from Susan Sontag’s introduction to The Best American Essays, 1992:

The word essay comes from the French essai, attempt—and many essayists, including the greatest of all, Montaigne, have insisted that the distinctive mark of the essay is its tentativeness, its disavowal of closed, systematic ways of thinking. Its most obvious trait, however, is assertiveness of one kind or another.

To read an essay properly, one must understand not only what it is arguing for but what it is arguing against. Reading the essays written by our contemporaries, we easily supply the context, the public argument, the opponent, explicit or implicit. The passage of a few decades can make this almost impossible.

Essays end up in books, but they start their life in magazines. (It’s hard to imagine a book of recent but previously unpublished essays.) The perennial comes now mainly in the guise of the topical and, in the short run, no literary form has as great and immediate an impact on contemporary readers. Many essays are discussed, debated, reacted to in a way that poets and writers of fiction can only envy.

The influential essayist is someone with an acute sense of what has not been (properly) talked about, what should be talked about (but differently). But what makes essays last is less their argument than the display of a complex mind and a distinctive prose voice.

Wisdom will get in anyhow

from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872):

I tell you what,—he said,—there’s so much intelligence about nowadays in books and newspapers and talk that it’s mighty hard to write without getting something or other worth listening to into your essay or your volume. The foolishest book is a kind of leaky boat on a sea of wisdom; some of the wisdom will get in anyhow. Every now and then I find something in my book that seems so good to me, I can’t help thinking it must have leaked in. I suppose other people discover that it came through a leak, full as soon as I do. You must write a book or two to find out how much and how little you know and have to say. Then you must read some notices of it by somebody that loves you and one or two by somebody that hates you. You’ll find yourself a very odd piece of property after you’ve been through these experiences. They’re trying to the constitution; I’m always glad to hear that a friend is as well as can be expected after he’s had a book.

Not one-tenth of them

from Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” (1931), translated by Harry John:

Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. At this point many of you will remember with pleasure the large library which Jean Paul’s poor little schoolmaster Wutz gradually acquired by writing, himself, all the works whose titles interested him in book fair catalogues; after all, he could not afford to buy them. Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like. You, ladies and gentlemen, may regard this as a whimsical definition of a writer. But everything said from the angle of a real collector is whimsical. Of the customary modes of acquisition, the one most appropriate to a collector would be the borrowing of a book with its attendant non-returning. The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervor with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books. If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it. And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?”

In praise of the antilibrary

from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007):

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

[…]

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

We like lists because we don’t want to die

Umberto Eco interviewed in Der Spiegel about his book The Infinity of Lists (2009):

SPIEGEL: Mr. Eco, you are considered one of the world’s great scholars, and now you are opening an exhibition at the Louvre, one of the world’s most important museums. The subjects of your exhibition sound a little commonplace, though: the essential nature of lists, poets who list things in their works and painters who accumulate things in their paintings. Why did you choose these subjects?

Umberto Eco: The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

SPIEGEL: Should the cultured person be understood as a custodian looking to impose order on places where chaos prevails?

Eco: The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

[…]

SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can’t be realistically completed?

Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

[…]

SPIEGEL: You yourself are more likely to work with books, and you have a library of 30,000 volumes. It probably doesn’t work without a list or catalogue.

Eco: I’m afraid that, by now, it might actually be 50,000 books. When my secretary wanted to catalogue them, I asked her not to. My interests change constantly, and so does my library. By the way, if you constantly change your interests, your library will constantly be saying something different about you. Besides, even without a catalogue, I’m forced to remember my books. I have a hallway for literature that’s 70 meters long. I walk through it several times a day, and I feel good when I do. Culture isn’t knowing when Napoleon died. Culture means knowing how I can find out in two minutes. Of course, nowadays I can find this kind of information on the Internet in no time. But, as I said, you never know with the Internet.

The books of the century

Daniel Immerwahr has compiled a remarkable list of the bestselling fiction, nonfiction, and historically significant or critically acclaimed books published each year in the United States in the twentieth century.

from Michael Korda, Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900–1999:

The bestseller list […] presents us with a kind of corrective reality. It tells us what we’re actually reading (or, at least what we’re actually buying) as opposed to what we think we ought to be reading, or would like other people to believe we’re buying. Like stepping on the scales, it tells us the truth, however unflattering, and is therefore, taken over the long haul, a pretty good way of assessing our culture and of judging how, if any, we have changed.

An engine of discovery

from the preface to Cell Biology by the Numbers, Ron Milo and Rob Phillips:

One of the great traditions in biology’s more quantitative partner sciences such as chemistry and physics is the value placed on centralized, curated quantitative data. Whether thinking about the astronomical data that describes the motions of planets or the thermal and electrical conductivities of materials, the numbers themselves are a central part of the factual and conceptual backdrop for these fields.  Indeed, often the act of trying to explain why numbers have the values they do ends up being an engine of discovery.