NOT a good idea, this list," I said, testily, when I was asked
to contribute to the selection process. It reminded me of those 100
Great Books university courses in the United States, which never
seemed much of a basis for syllabus construction. Unless you are a
publisher with an eye on sales figures, why put books in
Listing the best Christian books is not a modern idea. Crotchety
old Jerome drew up 135 approved Christian authors in the 390s, and
called them "Illustrious men". Modestly, he added himself.
Gennadius of Massilia brought the list up to date before he died
in 496; but the temptation to update the catalogue continued.
Sigebert of Gembloux, 600 years later, extended this list of
approved and outstanding authors of Christian books, and put
himself at the end in an extra-long section. Authorial vanity still
had its place.
The problem seems to be defining what constitutes "best". In
Jerome's time, it had still not been finally agreed which books
were "scriptural", and ought to be included in the Bible. His
"Christian authors" formed a second rank, ahead of the secular
classical authors, which he found so hard to put down that he was
worried that he was more a "Ciceronianus" than a "Christianus".
MUST books and authors be orthodox, or could they be included if
they were dubious but stimulating? Should the criterion be that
their popularity endured? Jerome could not check which were
favourites on Amazon. He could not look ahead down the centuries
and see which would still be "in print" in the 21st century.
Gennadius put in some names about which we should not know at
all if he had not listed them; so his guesswork about durability
was not very accurate. The works of Jerome's arch-rival, Augustine,
bulged in monastic and cathedral medieval libraries - often nearly
as frequently as the Bible, and the liturgy. But how many of his
works are now on every shelf?
I am not sure that The Consolation of Philosophy, by
Boethius, would still be everyone's first resort for consolation,
if they found themselves on death row.
So, in what does "bestness" lie? Booker Prize selection, or
personal preference? A book for the bedside table, the beach, the
condemned cell? Non-fiction, novels, poems, sermons, ebooks and
blogs, tracts for their times? The pre-Christian Cicero, who was
useful on duty, friendship, and old age? Books written by recluses
and the distinctly odd?
A chance sentence in a bad book may still change a life.
Dr G. R. Evans is Professor of Medieval Theology and
Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.