Here's a list of the two kinds of people in the world:
- People who like lists
- People who don't
As a member of the first group, I'm continuing to putter away on my grand list project, my bite-off-almost-more-than-you-can-chew book recommendations list.
The list is now called "266 Books by Genre." The number keeps changing!
The list started when my son decided at age ten or 11 that he didn't like to read. As an inveterate reader and bibliophile, this consternated me deeply—how do you learn about the world if you don't read? Books are where you find most of what humans know, and have learned, and have thought; they are where, mostly, the great glorious life of the mind resides.
So, taking a cue from our epic read-aloud traversal of the Harry Potter series when my fine lad was in single digits, I got a bright idea. I figured I'd just pick a bunch of the best books I know for finding out about the world, and read them aloud to him. Who says you can only read aloud to little kids? I was influenced by my off-the-grid friends Jim and Becky, who continued to read aloud to their daughter Lillian until well after the time when she could just as easily read aloud to them. (Their family might still read aloud together when she's home from college, I don't know.)
Jim and I were in the same 5th grade class at Bayside Elementary School, where we "hated" our teacher, a certain Mrs. Memmel. (She had firm favorites, and fairness was not a big point with her). But nemesis Mrs. Memmel did me one big solid, I think. For an hour a day she would read aloud to the class and have us follow along in our own books. It was there I heard how all the punctuation marks sounded. I've been visual since birth, and all my life had loved books for pictures; but fifth grade was when books really came alive for me—when type began to speak.
My project of reading aloud to Zander didn't last very long...about three chapters into an ornate translation of The Three Musketeers, to be precise. That is one difficult book to read aloud, and neither one of us were enjoying it much. In any event he had already discovered video games, then, as now, his favorite pastime. My reading put him to sleep, but I wasn't sure how much he was getting out of it. It seemed tiresome to me too. We stopped.
But I'd already succumbed to the danger ahead: I had started thinking about which books would be worth reading aloud to him...and by extension which books would be worth reading if you could only read a few...
...Think about it; they had to be comprehensible to a teenager, they had to be interesting and fun to read, but I wanted them to contain some education, too—some wisdom and useful information—some measure of truth about humans and our lives in the world. My idea was, if they end up fated to be the only books he ever reads, which ones should those be?
Another influence on this thinking is St. John's College in Maryland and Santa Fe. It teaches an entire curriculum based on reading alone. As a young man I really wanted to go to St. John's, and got as far as a campus visit. I loved the idea of educating yourself from "great books."
(Come to think of it—this just occurred to me—I'd make a great St. John's professor. How many other people do you know who tried to teach themselves Anglo-Saxon just to read The Seafarer? As an iconoclastic polymath autodidact, I'd be a natural candidate! Lol.)
Of course, St. John's picks very different books than I'd pick. They go right to primary sources, the great masterpieces of history. I've read some of those, and a lot of them are tough slogging. I mean, I don't mind reading Chaucer in Middle English or The Wealth of Nations, but these are not books that are recommendable to others, most especially post-videogame teenagers.
Another antecedent is Dr. Eliot's famous Five-Foot Shelf, which I admire. From a distance.
Reading aloud—the original conception of the project—would impose certain disciplines, too. Reading aloud is more clearly a cousin to entertainment, so you'd want to pick something reasonably gripping, something that stood a chance of carrying your listener along. You'd also want words that slipped the tongue with mellifluousness and grace, writings with a little poetry and eloquence—literary art. You would shun books that are dry, and, since reading aloud requires an investment in time and effort, you'd stay away from those that are overlong. (It is safe to claim that reading Proust was a life-changing experience for you, because only about one in 100,000 other readers will be in a position to contradict you.) You would never choose Kant, or James Gould Cozzens.
(Kant illustrates a chronic failing of book lists: they're always telling you to read books you know damn well you'll never read. "Read Ulysses," says the List of 100 Great Novels, with a supercilious sniff of supriority. Sure thing, pal. "Read War and Peace." No, you read War and Peace. I'm doing well just to make it three-quarters of the way through The Death of Ivan Ilyich.)
All of this thinking has contributed to my evolving "266 Books by Genre" list, now aimed at intelligent teenagers generically, with adults invited too. (My list has some hard books, true, but it also has some easy ones.)
It is astonishing how much work can go into such a list, if you're taking the task seriously. The research to nail down one entry can occupy me for a whole evening. I have probably read at least 50 books merely as research for the list, and the number could easily be double that, depending on how you count. And I have re-read a number, too, which is not one of my usual reading habits (too little time, too many books). I'm re-reading O.E. Rolvaag's wonderful novel Giants in the Earth right now, and I must say I'm enjoying it a lot more now than when I read it in American History class in high school (although I was proud of myself for getting entirely through it when I was 14).
I'm reading the Harper Perennial Classics paperback. I bought it as consolation when my Kindle went AWOL recently.
I have a vintage hardcover of that selfsame book, but it's packed away in a box in the basement. Managing one's own reading sources is sometimes not the easiest thing in the world.
But back to The List, which I guess I should capitalize, given the capital I'm investing in it in terms of time and energy and care. It currently consists of 36 genres or categories, with between three and ten titles in each. So far, only one author is represented twice. The categories and their matches to various books are almost a separate puzzle, and I'm having fun with that too—for instance, To Kill A Mockingbird is in the "Legal & Courtroom" category, whereas it might also fit in the section called "Family," and Crime and Punishment is (perhaps too cleverly) located in "Psychology."
The categories can take on their own life a bit, as well. When you only have five or six books with which to "cover" a topic, you can't be exhaustive—each set provides a snapshot, you might say, a taste, a window into a far broader literature. I try to ask, if a general reader were only going to read five works of science fiction (for example), which five should those be? And, if that reader is perchance going to go on to become an aficionado of that genre, which titles are most likely to lead her in that direction?
In many cases it's not the greatest masterpieces of each genre that are the best choice. Many times, those really are best appreciated by someone who is delving deeper into the genre, and loves it better than than can be encompassed in five titles. I do that same thing with authors, too—I love Turgenev, for instance, but he's represented on The List by the brief psychological novella First Love rather than by his acknowledged masterpiece Fathers and Sons. The latter should really just not be any reader's first or only exposure to Turgenev.
Then there's the question of expertise. With certain categories, I'm almost an expert—the six titles in "Arts & Crafts" fitted themselves together very neatly, and very early on. But "History" is still wide open, with only one final choice nailed down. I could read for the rest of my life and not rise to the level of expert, so in the History category I am going to have to rely on research and the opinions of others.
On the other hand, I think "Money & Finance" is nailed down. I'm not an expert, but I did extensive research and consulted a number of people, and I think I've winnowed the many candidates down to a good, readable, and reasonably balanced selection:
Money & Finance (7)
Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds
(Chapters 1–3) 
Edwin Lefevre, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator 
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson 
Thomas J. Stanley, The Millionaire Next Door 
Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker 
Anthony Bianco, Wal-Mart: The Bully of Bentonville 
John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society 
As I say, just a taste of the subject—but a tasty one. And catholic—one might prefer the word "idiosyncratic"—as well as thought-provoking.
The glowing page
Finally, there is the question of editions. Books are physical objects, and all books are emphatically not created equal. Not only does physical presentation and object-quality vary wildly, but the actual contents can differ—translations, annotations, selections, even introductions (my personal copy of Huckleberry Finn features the introduction by T.S. Eliot—that might not be important to 99.9% of that book's readers, but it is to me).
This intersects with another evolution in my life and the life of the world. A few years ago I bought an early Amazon Kindle. I did not take to it right away, but, like digital cameras, digital books have just a few indisputable, indubitable advantages that cannot be gainsaid. In the case of digital cameras, it's high-ISO capability and the elimination of the odious chore of wet chemical development; with digital books, it is radically improved convenience in terms of access and storage, and the fact that you can choose your type size on the fly to make reading as comfortable as pie. (It now annoys me that I can't adjust the size of the tiny type in car magazines...although I probably could on an iPad.)
I realized how much I had grown to depend on my Kindle when I lost it a few weeks back. It was like a beloved dog had run away. I was bereft.
I finally faced facts—that damn'd Kindle isn't coming back—so I ordered a Kindle Paperwhite. Review forthcoming, but suffice it for now to say that the Kindle has really evolved.
The Kindle hasn't made me love books any less, however. I adore books, and will do so until I expire. But it has changed the way I buy books, as well as the books I buy.
My mantra is now "fewer, but better." Since I bought the Kindle I have donated more than 20 boxes of books to the local used book store. What I look for now are paper books that have to be paper books—ones that are fine, or rare, or old, or well-designed, or well-made, or unusual, or illustrated, or interestingly bound, or that benefit from formatting—and books that are important to me personally. To have it as a paper book, it's no longer enough for a book just to deliver into my hands a text, long the job of the cheap paperback—for that, for me, the Kindle has taken over.
With many of the books on The List, a capable Kindle edition or a workmanlike paperback would do just fine—all you need is the text.
But with others, the edition is important. I'd love to be able to recommend every title on my List in the form of an in-print paper book, and in just the right edition. That adds another layer to the research process, however, because, having once selected a book, I then have to research all the various printings and editions, always with an eye to availability. (It doesn't help that the Amazon website is not very rigorous in discriminating between various editions of a book.) It's looking like the size of the task of recommending editions might come close to the size of the task of picking the books.
Sometimes, it's easy. For instance, Betty Friedan's great classic The Feminine Mystique, a shoo-in choice in the "Feminism" category (and a suprisingly good read for those of us of the male persuasion), has just been republished by W.W. Norton & Company in a 50th Anniversary edition. A nicely produced hardcover, lovingly prepared and presented, with good-sized, readable type—and Gail Collins and Anna Quindlen thrown into the bargain? Done and done.
This business can be problematic, too, though. For example: You'll notice that Edwin Lefevre's famous investing classic, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, is included in my "Money & Finance" genre. Well, it is now available new in a 2009 annotated edition from Wiley that is just super. The new annotations by John Markman are worth twice the price of the hardcover, and they bring Livermore and Lefevre's collaboration more alive than it has been in years. I don't even like money and investing, and I've been immersed in this. In this case, it's hardly enough just to recommend the title...it has to be a paper book (the formatting is key) and it has to be this specific edition.
I'm beginning to think—just beginning to think—that this great List of mine might actually never get finished. It's possible that, like the sum total of the books in a living reader's experience, it might remain forever a work in progress, sustained by the endlessness of the world's good books and the meager thimbleful we can each imbibe in one mere lifetime. One might even observe that most lists are in a sense never final, because everyone who ever reads a list finds clunkers and gems, choices that fit their needs and tastes and ones that don't. One seldom if ever swallows the thing whole, but picks and chooses and takes away from it what he or she will.
But I plan to keep going anyway. Unfinished lists are just not as good as the ones that are done, for the compiler if no one else.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic editorials and essays that appear only, but not always, on Sundays on TOP.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Terry Letton: "On the subject of reading aloud to children, when my daughter was very young I was alone with her one evening when she went on a crying jag not to be stifled. After trying all the obvious answers, food, food's end result, rocking...with no success, I picked up a book at random and started reading aloud with immediate result. The book, The Philosophy of History by G.W.F. Hegel. It worked so well that when she was pregnant with her first child I gave her a copy of her own."
Mike replies: I'm going to wager she's not the only one Hegel ever put to sleep.
scott: "You know what would make this list a whole lot better? If you shared it with your loyal readers, even in its incomplete form. Sure, there will be quibbling about which books made the cut or didn't, but that's the point, isn't it? And it's rather a tease to talk about the merits of this list without sharing it."
Mike replies: Well, it's not finshed, scott, and not ready for presenting. What I thought I might do is release every category one at a time once I'm finally happy with it, as I've done in this post. I'm mulling over the idea of doing so on its own separate blog, to avoid irritating TOP readers who aren't interested. We'll see.
David Dyer-Bennet: "I used to kind of like the 'great books' idea for education. But the more I learned and the more great books I read (foundational works in various intellectual areas, I mean, not fiction), the more it became clear to me that we've mostly found vastly better ways to explain these things than the people who first figured them out managed. This was most clear to me comparing Newton or Leibnitz with modern introductions to calculus (math is my degree field). So now I'm kind of off the idea."
Mike replies: Well said, and, really, I agree. It's far more efficient to read a good modern summary of the views of Thomas Hobbes in current English than it is to try to pluck them out of Leviathan by yourself. This is probably where the idea that "classics are great books nobody ever reads" came from. On the other hand, I'm a fan of Elizabethan translations, so it can cut both ways.
Christopher: "I would be a person very interested in this type of list. Especially if it is directed at newer, less seasoned readers. I've had a bad relationship with books for the majority of my life, as I've struggled with dyslexia and a plethora of other learning disabilities throughout it. The learning disabilities aren't what really stifled my love of books however, it was the way some of my teachers tried to 'cure' it and the public humiliation that soon followed which truly had the debilitating effect of destroying my relationship with books. I have only really started making the turn to enjoying reading quite recently. So I would push to say, that even while an unfinished list may not be particularly good in your eyes, the goal of the finished list may still be reachable while the list is in progress, so would it not be beneficial to publish it as such? A work in progress that never gets finished but is visible will always have more of an impact than one sitting away in a cabinet somewhere."
Mike replies: My condolences, Christopher. That was my son's problem too: he had a reading disorder when he was young, and his teachers refused to excuse him from reading aloud to the class, and he got made fun of. He transferred his resentment to books. The resentment survives, even though he now reads very well.
One good strategy you shouldn't be ashamed to try is to look for classic books written for adolescents (there's a lot of garbage floating around, hence the advice to look for established classics). For instance, if you want to read about the Civil War, start with Rifles for Watie or Across Five Aprils. You might not appreciate age-appropriate romance books for kids, or books about mice riding motorcycles, but books for young people can run the gamut from the inane to great literature such as Alice in Wonderland and Lord of the Flies. Checking out reading lists for any particular age group is easily done in private thanks to the Internet.
Thrillers might be a good way to get into reading—maybe our friend John Camp could recommend some that are known to be page-turners.
Certain writers have blunter, more plainspoken styles, like Raymond Carver. That might help you get past any skill impediments. And make no mistake, they can be very serious writers. Try out some Hemingway short stories or the short novels of John Steinbeck, for that matter.
I'd also suggest not wasting your time, and letting yourself off the hook when things aren't going well. Set yourself a page limit—40 or 60 pages, maybe—and read at least that much of every book you attempt. That gives you a good chance to get into the book. But then, at that point, if you aren't into it, give up and try something else. Don't feel bad about bailing out on a book. Not everything grabs everyone, and no one is keeping score. Reading for yourself shouldn't be an obligation and it shouldn't be punishment.
Phil Maus: "I spent the first twenty-odd years of my life educating myself through books. I learned to read at an early age and by seven or eight I could easily handle Twain, (I mean his text, not necessarily his ideas). School and I never got on well and I quit in my teens. One of my life's great regrets....
"Still, I thought the best way to learn about the world, as you put it, was by reading 'the Classics,' which in my limited formal education consisted of Dickens, Twain, Dumas, Stevenson, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Chekov and a handful of others I'd heard of. And that was about it. Throw in about an equal number (maybe a few more) non-fiction titles and you've pretty much summed up my education. Many of these were read in my berth in some ship, where I spent much of my youth. Of course, I've read many more books than that in my life, but none, I think, of any real consequence. And, my second great regret in life....
"I've never lost the love of reading or the curiosity or the desire for the knowledge contained in books. I still believe—naively I think—that if one can possibly find or make the time (the scarcest commodity of them all) to read a book, it should be something of substance. In other words, it must be a 'classic.' Whatever that means anymore.
"My wife of ten years doesn't read and never has and I've given up on my many attempts to impress upon her the value of a good story and the many other virtues contained in books. During the day I can't read while the TV is on and the TV is always on. Downside of living in a large, one-room loft; no escaping to the den to read. At bedtime, which used to be the hour or two each night I would spend with whatever book I was enjoying, reading long ago became an unwelcome activity and all my 'attention' should be directed elsewhere, or to sleeping.
"How I envy those who are well and roundly read, or for whom reading many books and acquiring the knowledge contained within isn't such a daunting proposition. Still, I am looking forward to your list, Mike, finished or not. Maybe with your help, and if I can manage to wrest the time to read a book, I'll have an idea what to spend those precious hours reading."
Mike replies: I'm single at the moment, so I'm used to not having to compromise. To my detriment, in some ways. But still, it does not seem unreasonable at all to me to demand a few hours free of the TV now and then so you can read.
Bill Tyler: "DDB's comments on the great books seem only half right to me. I certainly wouldn't want to learn calculus by reading Newton, but a good translation of Plato is far more informative than a modern summary of his ideas. I think the distinction is between works where the form of expression is a crucial part of the material expressed, and those where the underlying ideas come clearer as they are expanded and refined. Consider reading a restatement of Swift's 'Modest Proposal' versus the original. Everything important will be lost."