Monday, October 8, 2018
Can You Craft A Lifetime Reading Plan By Replacing The Classics?
There are many books that feature lists of recommended books. Yes, whole books are dedicated to telling you what you should read. These lists could taut dozens or hundreds of books that could take decades to get through. But before we discuss the merits of how such lists get made and whether some books were unjustly excluded or included, let’s explore the methodology behind such a list.
Should we come up with a list that focuses mainly on popular books, social significant ones, critically acclaimed tomes, or purely whether or not the book’s subject matter matches with a reader’s preferences?
So, really, the first question is: What are you seeking to accomplish with such a reading list? Are you reading books that will merely entertain you or are they to educate and enlighten you? Purpose vs. pleasure.
Next, are you looking to read books because they were deemed classics by many and you want to know what’s in them, to be aware of the content as much as actually to find them useful?
How are we to reconcile our conflicting interests? We can have a list of just poetry, just horror, just of New England authors, just of the 18th century — and scores of other genres. How do we combine all of this into one list?
Must we be sensitive to how many books are written by people of a certain race, religion, region, class, politics, etc.? What about books written for those of a particular class or by one?
What ratio does a list consist of the past vs. present, of one era vs. another?
How do we mix fiction with non-fiction?
The problem is that few people – experts or lay people – can agree on most things. Not everyone loves Shakespeare, and even his biggest fans will debate which of his works are the very best. No one likes every genre and many only really love one or two genres. And just because a book was important to some people during a certain time period, must everyone from all years be expected to read it?
What I think would be helpful is to come up with a big, broad list of awareness – books we should at least know about, but don’t necessarily have to read. The list can provide a few paragraphs per book as to why it’s a significant book. The list could easily hold 10,000 books. And it will grow over time – or perhaps we’ll merely start to remove one from the list as a new one comes out and proves itself worthy.
The thing is, all books, if written and edited well, always offer something of value to the reader and some truth is shared, some information exposed, some theory debated, some emotion witnessed that makes a reader feel a book served him. But we also know that for as many good books there are out there, only a handful can be truly great, and if we can figure out which great ones would best serve people, we can guide the masses to read those books. Not only would the merits and relevance of a book serve the reader well, society would be served if we all read more books and shared a deeper, common understanding of things by reading the same books.
But even if we all were on a universal path to reading the same books, we’d read them differently from one another, simply because the prejudices, dreams, experiences, abilities, needs and circumstances that we each bring to a book varies immensely. Books about the black or Jewish experience will be perceived one way by blacks and Jews (with disagreements even in their own communities) and another by non-Blacks and Jews. Older people will read a book with a different perspective than a younger person. A Californian will read the same book differently from how a Southerner reads it. A poor person will read a book in such a different way than a rich person would.
Books are not alone. They exist alongside other ways for people to consume content, including newspapers, magazines, television, theater, movies, blogs, podcasts, and websites. A reading list of books will need to be compiled in light of the fact that people already consume lots of content from a variety of sources.
Many books make a variety of lists for different reasons. For instance, some are on a list because they represent what was the best in an era of few competing titles. A lot fewer books were published in the 17th century than are today.
Other books make a list because they were published in an era when certain people were excluded from getting published, such as women or blacks. Perhaps those books that seemed great when published would’ve not been so popular or important had other voices been allowed to compete back then.
Some books, merely because they survived the ravages of time, are still read today, such as a book from many centuries ago.
Lots of books make a list because they were the first to do or say something, but for how long must we honor such a thing? Should we look for best rather than first?
These lists are also based on past lists and experiences of judges or experts who may have been exposed to similar lists when younger. For instance, if you were raised in a particular era when a book was all the rage it may hold sway on a variety of lists merely because it was viewed by a small circle of academics in a favorable light. Future generations may struggle to dismiss what some respected experts had declared but they may also fail to catch up and acknowledge that decades have passed and more great books must be weighed against prior selections.
A book can’t be great forever, can it? Books are great because they speak to us. Over time, so much changes in the world, even in the human experience, that a book’s ability to be fully appreciated, understood, and relevant has to diminish.
So, as wonderful as you may think Dickens, Twain, Austen, Shakespeare, Swift, Orwell, Poe, Hemingway or Descartes to be, they each will fade into the sunset over time. And that’s okay. They won’t fade away because people forgot them. They’ll fade away because new great books will come and new generations will fail to read the previously great books with the same feeling, understanding, or relevance as they used to hold for prior generations. I know it seems inconceivable or heresy, but eventually the authors and books that you hold dearest will become mere footnotes in the history of books and of the world.
The books that could last the longest are the ones that deal with seemingly timeless issues – love, war, crime, insanity, philosophy, power – but even those will slowly but surely have too many outdated references, will lack too many of the modern lifestyle attributes, such as technology, and will seem too specific to a class, nation, or select group. Sure we can still enjoy Shakespeare, Plato, or Dostoyovsky today, but for how long?
If books do what they are really supposed to – help us reflect, change and grow – we will become better writers and readers and feel inspired to write modern, if not better, versions of the so-called classics.
But until such classics get displaced or replaced, we should figure out a way to effectively determine which are worth reading, and to encourage others to read the same books. Maybe then we can expedite the process for the creation of their replacements. And if something exceeds Shakespeare, Whitman, Hawthorne, or Defoe that would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Don’t parents want their children to do better than they did? Of course they do.
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