Mar 27 2016

How to Be Independent of Outward Destiny

From The Meaning of Culture (1929), by John Cowper Powys.

Literature alone is something that conceals itself; for no one can force you to read advertisements or literary supplements; and withdraws itself, hiding in shelves and libraries and bookshops, until the exact moment arrives, propitious, auspicious, and under the right astrological influences, when you need just that particular book and no other. The outward destiny which places you near a good library is one of the redeeming aspects of a big town or a big university; but the nucleus of your culture will never abide in such a library, no! not even if it be the very Bodleian itself. It will abide in your own mental fortress. Your mind will be its own little round tower of Montaigne the Essayist. And as for collections of books, how independent of outward destiny is the man whose great library of Alexandria is contained in one small, portable shelf! Small enough that shelf can be to stand at your bed’s head or even on the ground of your nomad’s tent or beneath your charts in your ship’s cabin.

Every cultured man, every cultured woman will have his own secret ecclesia of precious books. The present writer’s would be the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” the texts of the Chinese “Tao” in James Legge’s translation, the Psalms of David, the four great novels of Dostoievsky, Goethe’s “Faust,” Shakespeare’s Plays, Wordsworth’s Poems, Pater’s “Marius” and as many of the volumes of Proust as such a tiny shelf had room for. It is, as we have hinted, a matter of your outward destiny what music, what drama, what sculpture, what paintings, what architecture, what delicate bric-a-brac your wanderings may have enabled you to light upon. But it is a matter of your inward destiny–beyond heredity and beyond environment–what books your mysterious daimon, upheaving from out the eternal through the phenomena of the temporal, has given you the grace to select.

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