Saturday, August 25, 2018

Which Old Books Are Worth Reading Today?

“Theres is no way of estimating the number of other books which have been lost, let alone, the number of poems which never got written down,” says The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature, edited by Pat Rogers.

Just how much literature has been lost over the years due to:

·         Fire
·         Flood
·         War
·         Theft
·         Misplacement            
·         Sunlight/heat
·         Vandals 
       Crumbling books due to poor storage conditions or poor quality paper
·         Book bans and ordered destructions

Indeed, there could be single copies of books long gone form public access that exist in a private collection, unshared with the world.  There could be books lost to computers that are broken or outdated.  There could be books boxed up in a warehouse or library basement, uncatalogued or undiscovered.  Books, over the years were intentionally destroyed by kings, invading armies, political foes, or those who sought to limit what people can know, think, or believe.

Up until the 21st century, the world’s collection of books was somewhat limited. Now everything is digitized and readily available – millions of books – with a million more added to the pile each year.  We went from not wanting to miss a published book to not knowing how to properly digest all of the books that flood our libraries, bookstores, and e-readers.

If we were to create a time capsule to preserve the greatest works of the past as well as contemporary titles, which would we choose?

In The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman, we are given a glimpse as to which books seem important from every era of time. Here are the book’s choices for one looking to read a list of society-shaping tomes:

The Beginning
Homer, The Iliad
Homer. The Odyssey
Herodotus.  The Histories
Thucydides.  The History of the Peloponnesian War
Plato. Selected Works
Aristotle. Ethics, Politics
Aeschylus.  The Oresteia
Sophocles.  Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone
Euripides. Alcestis, Medea, Hippolytus, Trojan Women, Electra, Bacchae
Lucretius.  Of the Nature of Things
Virgil.  The Aeneid
Marcus Aurelius.  Meditations

The Middle Ages
Saint Augustine. Confessions
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy
Geoffrey Chaucer.  The Canterbury Tales

William Shakespeare. Complete Works
Moliére. Selected Plays
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust
Henrik Ibsen. Selected Plays
George Bernard Shaw.  Selected Plays and Prefaces
Anton Chekhov. Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard
Eugene O’Neill.  Mourning Becomes Electra,The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night
Samuel Beckett. Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape
Contemporary Drama, edited by E.Bradlee Watson and Benfield Pressey

John Bunyan.  The Pilgrim’s Progress
Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe
Jonathan Swift.  Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, Meditations Upon a Broomstick, Resolutions When I Come to Be Old
Laurence Sterne.  Tristram Shandy
Henry Fielding.  Tom Jones
Jane Austen.  Pride and Prejudice, Emma
Emily Bronte. Wuthering Heights
William Makepeace Thackery. Vanity Fair
Charles Dickens. Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit
George Eliot. The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch
Lewis Carroll.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,
Through the Looking-Glass
Thomas Hardy.  The Mayor Casterbridge
Joseph Conrad. Nostromo
E.M. Forster. A Passage to India
James Joyce.  Ulysses
Virginia Woolf.  Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves
D.H. Lawrence. Sons and Lovers.  Women in Love
Aldous Huxley. Brave New World, Collected Essays
George Orwell. Animal Farm Nineteen Eighty-four
Thomas Mann.  The Magic Mountain
Franz Kafka. The Trial, The Castle, Selected Short Stories
Francois Rabelais.  Gargantua and Pantagruel
Voltaire.  Candide and Other Works
Stendhal.  The Red and the Black
Honoré de Balzac. Pére Goriot, Eugenie Grandet
Gustave Flaubert. Madame Bovary
Marcel Proust.  Remembrance of Things Past
Andre Malraux. Man’s Fate
Albert Camus. The Plague, The Stranger
Edgar Allan Poe. Short Stories and Other Works
Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter, Selected Tales
Herman Melville.  Moby Dick, Bartleby the Scrivener
Mark Twain.  Huckleberry Finn
Henry James. The Ambassadors
William Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying
Ernest Hemingway. Short Stories
Saul Bellow. The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.  Don Quixote
Jorge Louis Borges. Labyrinths, Dreamtigers
Gabriel García Márquez.  One Hundred Years of Solitude
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol.  Dead Souls
Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev. Fathers and Sons
Feodor Mikhailovich Tolstoy. War and Peace
Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita Pale; Fire; Speak, Memory
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. The First Circle, Cancer Ward

Philosophy, Psychology Politics, Essays
Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan
John Locke. Second Treatise of Government
David Hume.  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
John Stuart Mill. On Liberty
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  The Communist Manifesto
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Thus Spake Zarathustra, Selected Other Works
Sigmund Freud. Selected Works
Niccoló Machiavelli. The Prince
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Selected Essays
René Descartes. Discourse on Method
Blaise Pascal Thoughts (Pensées)
Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Selected Works
Henry David Thoreau. Walden, Civil Disobedience
William James. The Principles of Psychology ,Pragmatism and Four Essays from the Meaning of Truth, The Varieties of Religious Experience
John Dewey. Human Nature and Conduct
George Santayana. Skepticism and Animal Faith Selected Other Works

John Donne. Selected Works
John Milton.  Paradise Lost, Lycidas, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Sonnets, Areopagitica
William Blake. Selected Works
William Wordsworth.  The Prelude; Selected Shorter Poems; Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, 1800
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Ancient Mariner, Christable, Kubla Khan, Biographia Literaria, Writings on Shakespeare
William Butler Yeats. Collected Poems, Collected Plays, The Autobiography
T.S. Eliot.  Collected Poems, Collected Plays
Walt Whitman. Selected Poems Democratic Vistas, Preface to first issue of Leaves of Grass (1855), A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads
Robert Frost.  Collected Poems
Poets of the English Language, edited by W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair

History Biography Autobiography
Basic Documents in American History, edited by Richard B. Morris
The Federalist Papers, edited by Clinton Rossiter
Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Confessions
James Roswell. The Life of Samuel Johnson
Henry Adams. The Education of Henry Adams
Fernand Braudel.  The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century

William H. McNeill. The Rise of the West
Will and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization
Samuel Eliot Morison.  The Oxford History of the American People
Page Smith. A People’s History of the United States
Alfred North Whitehead.  Science and the Modern World
Alfred North Whitehead.  An introduction to Mathematics
E.H. Gombrich. The Story of Art
Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book

In the Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom (1994), he identifies hundreds of American and international titles that are worthy of consumption today. He properly notes the following:

“Originally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions, and despite the recent politics of multiculturalism, the Canon’s true question remains:  What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?  The Biblical three-score years and ten are no longer suffice to read more than a selection of the great writers in what can be called the Western tradition, let alone in all the world’s traditions.  Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read.”

Before we get to the “what” should be read, everyone has to answer “why” they choose to read at all.

Is it to further justify a solitary existence – or do they sacrifice relationships, activities, and first-person experiences in the world in order to read of the world through the eyes or manifestations of others?

Is the motive to read so that one feels they can have a similar experience with all of those who read the same book, to feel united and akin to one another?

Do we read because it’s safe – we can’t get hurt, risk anything, or lose by reading?  We can certainly  gain knowledge, feel empathy, and gain insights on the views of others.

Reading is a deeply personal experience, even if we end up sharing in a community of readers that which feels truthful, pure, and wonderful.

Books provide so many obvious benefits but they also give us the freedom to live beyond what we could possibly do, know, or feel.  They supplement our lives.

So what should one do with their precious time as readers?  Do you read the newest and latest books first – and then peer back into the past by sampling classics from various eras?  Do you pick a genre and seek to consume the best it has to offer, old or new, American or foreign?  Are you into fiction or non-fiction – or both?  Will you try poetry, essays, and short stories?

Is a reader capable of appreciating so many different types of books and authors?  Can one value reading the ancient Near East text, Gilgamesh or The Apocrypha, as much as reading Stephen King’s Carrie or E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey?

Could you digest Shakespeare, The Mahabharata, Plato’s Dialogues, Aristotle’s Ethics, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and Seneca’s Tragedies as easily as you would consume St. Augustine’s The Confessions, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Swift’s Gulliver Travels, or Hugo’s Les Miserables?

Will there come a time when people don’t bother to look beyond a handful of classics, focusing their attention on modern fare?  That time may already be upon us.  If you’re not an English major in college or if you’re not a writer, the average person reads only a few books each year.  Are they more apt to read what’s on a bestseller list or a historically significant book from three centuries ago?

How many people now get to experience, understand, and treasure the Poems of William Wordsworth or Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake?  They may be reading some Dickens, Twain, and Austen, but are they reading William Morris, Wilkie Collins, James Cooper, and Francis Parkman?

So, the question still remains unanswered – what should we read?  Why?

Individuals will need to provide their answers but society should guide us and inspire people to not only read, but to show why some books should still be read.

Just as each generation looks to pass along certain values and ways of living, it also seeks to provide a sense of culture and places importance on some books, movies, music, and philosophy. What will we pass on to the next generation, by way of new books as well as our recommendations from the past?

Who will be here to whisper to propel us to check out David Mamet’s American Buffalo, Sam Shepard’s Seven Plays, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, William Kennedy’s Ironweed, E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, or Thomas Pynchon’s V, while others think that we should read George  Orwell’s 1984, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Flannery O’Conner’s Wise Blood, or Ezra Pound’s The Cantos? What of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald or O’Neill?

We can go and on.  And as we debate what’s a classic and which classics need to be read, more are added to the list.  If one can live a thousand years – and read a thousand books a year – both distinct impossibilities right now – one still couldn’t even read 5% of what’s known to exist in 2018.  

By 3018, at current rates, a billion books will exist.


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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.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.

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