Sunday, February 25, 2018

Shall You Read A Classic Or Something New?

One of the oldest bookstores in New York City, Argosy Book Store, established in 1925, sold me a copy of Cyclopedia of World Authors.  How fitting that I bought a used book from 1958 about hundreds of famous authors from the well-worn shelves of the vintage shop.

Argosy Book Store, near where I work on East 59th Street in New York City, sells old and rare books, antique maps, fine prints and autographed books.  Not quite as popular as Strand Book Store, it is nevertheless a pleasant midtown oasis for the discerning bibliophile.

The book that I purchased came with a book mark that was adorned with the words of Virginia Wolf that resonate today when one reflects on the experience of browsing at a used bookstore;

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books, they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feathers, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.  Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

The book that I hold in my hands features 753 condensations of authors’ lives that give illuminating facts about their philosophy, writing perspectives, and temp of the periods they wrote in.  For just 15 bucks I got to smell the past.  Literally.  Just flipping the yellowing pages reminded me of when I’d rummage through the bookshelf of my grandmother’s books.

This book represents another era, published by Harper & Row. Though published 60 years ago, it includes many authors we’d still consider important and relevant, from Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Browning, and Albert Camus to Marcus Cicero, Daniel Defoe, and Benjamin Franklin.

What’s interesting about this book is it attempts to introduce the writers of influential books where the writers come from all over the country and world, and represent thousands of years of writings.  The accompanying biographies not only include greatest works and basic details of the writers, but rather, they seek to tell a story that gives context to their writings and puts their work into a historical perspective.

However, the book fails to show by what litmus test the editors and contributors employed to figure out who is worthy of inclusion.  Such a book, if published today, would be burdened to judge not only all of the books of the distant past but the millions of volumes that have exploded in recent decades. It’s almost an unmanageable task.

It gets harder and harder to rank the most important authors, or even the best books – of an era, genre, or of all time.

I also think that the more emphasis we give to a canon of hand-picked books, such as Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities, the more we limit ourselves from experiencing other books that could be just as worthy and maybe even more relevant to us today.  If we don’t explore new books will we be relegated to the past works of great authors, leaving us in a time warp?

Great books teach us important lessons or awaken us to certain philosophies, tap into deep emotions, make us laugh uncontrollably, or explore fantasies guilt-free.  Whatever books can do for us, will we always find what we need in the so-called classics, or do we need to constantly revise that list and measure them to the newest generation of books?

This can be said of music, movies, television, and other forms of cultural art and content.  We must honor the past and take from it what we can, but we also must be open to recognizing the newly published classic right before us.

I find combing through the Cyclopedia of World Authors both overwhelming and comforting.  It burdens me to think there are at least 750 authors, each with several, if not, dozens of books, worth reading.  I could never in my lifetime get to all of their books – and certainly would have no time to explore any books that were published after 1958.

But it also comforts me to know that self-selected experts and book lovers could come together and, narrow down, from all of the books ever written and salvaged, a list of books and authors deemed significant and worthy of our attention.  By just reading about them, one can start to absorb the messages and principles espoused in the words of these authors, all of them dead and long gone.

This book allows me to fall back in love with George Orwell, Alexander Pope, Arthur Miller, Dostoyovsky, Hugo, and Edgar Allan Poe while discovering so many authors I never heard of or couldn’t recall having read, including Llewelyn Powys, Fernando De Rojas, Sappho, and Torquato Tasso.

What should you read next?  Will it be today’s best-seller, a university press title, or a self-published collection of poetry?  Or will it be a book from another century?  Mix it up and discover your own canon of great books.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource."

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