Looking for a good book to read? Well, you’ve come to the right place, because I love books that are filled with reading recommendations. In this, the first installment of “Books about Books,” I will focus on the so-called literary “classics.” I know that both high schools and universities are moving away from the classics, but I contend that we should continue to read them for the lessons they contain, and because the great ideas in them are timeless. When I read the classics I feel like I am sitting down with some of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, and that those men and women are speaking to me personally about the ideas they thought were important. Can life get any better than that?
You don’t have to take a college course to read such literature, you simply need to come up with a plan, and then carry through with it. Part of that plan should be to find someone you trust who will suggest what you should read. Then you need to find a brief introduction to each work that you take up. The authors below give you both the lists, and the introductions.
The titles of the five books I recommend are shown in both italics and boldface when first mentioned. I present these excellent books to you in no particular order.
Way back in 1960 Clifton Fadiman (1904 – 1999) published one of my favorite books about books entitled The Lifetime Reading Plan. In 1998 it was updated with the assistance of John S. Major, and got a new title: The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classic Guide to World Literature Revised and Expanded. Major’s main contribution was to add books that go beyond the Western canon and that are, in many cases, a bit more current than those chosen by Fadiman. As the title suggests, the book focuses on classics – both fiction and nonfiction – rather than simply popular literature.
Where authors have produced multiple books, Fadiman and Major choose what they consider to be the best of the best. For instance Fadiman included only two of the seven novels written by George Eliot: The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. In the case of William Shakespeare, the collected works are recommended. And who can argue with that?. The 133 entries begin with The Epic of Gilgamesh and conclude with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The “Bibliography” recommends specific editions of each book, and in the case of translated works recommends well thought of translations. Since this book is somewhat dated, you will find that some very good recent translations are not mentioned.
After the main entries there is an appendix entitled “Going Further” in which Major presents 100 single paragraph entries on 100 different authors beginning with Richard Adams and ending with Richard Wright.
Another book that focuses on the literary classics is Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness. Each chapter, which is in reality an essay, is written by a different contributor and contains beautiful illustrations and short quotes from the work under discussion. Each ends with an “Issues to Explore” section containing thought-provoking questions about the book just discussed and “For Further Study” which includes preferred translations in the case of works written in foreign languages, and related books which might be of interest to the reader.
Individual works discussed by the books many highly-credentialed contributors include The Republic by Plato, the poems of John Donne, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Trial by Franz Kafka, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. There are also general entries on such topics as Roman and Italian classics, western social and political philosophy, modern poetry in English, and the importance of the classics.
Though Invitation to the Classics does not cover as many books as The New Lifetime Reading Plan, Invitation to the Classics is a much more scholarly work, and each entry offers far more information than does Fadiman’s book.
Pulitzer Prize winning author and Washington Post columnist Michael Dirda has written a number of books about books. My two favorites are Classics for Pleasure and Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education. Dirda’s erudition is truly mind-blowing. He seems to be equally at ease writing about well-known authors such as Ovid, Sappho, Christopher Marlowe, Daphne Du Maurier, and Isak Dinesen, and more obscure authors including Abolqasem Ferdowski, Sheridan Le Fanu, William Roughead, and Xavier de Maistre. Dirda also includes chapters on the Icelandic sagas, Arthurian romances, the English religious tradition, and classic fairy tales. By the way, all of the above authors and subjects are only a small part of what Dirda lays before us in Classics for Pleasure.
Dirda’s focus is different in Bound to Please. In it he comments on a number of biographies including those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Pushkin, Samuel Pepys, Vermeer, and William Blake; and discusses the collected works of Rabelais, Jorge Luis Borges, and Isaac Babel. As you would hope and expect, he also includes reviews of books by some current authors including Tales of Ovid by Ted Hughes, Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, The Tale of the 1002nd Night by Joseph Roth, Underworld by Don De Lillo, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
My final recommendation is Robert B. Downs’ Books That Changed the World. Published in 1956 and revised in 1978, Downs’ book, like Clifton Fadiman’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan, is a bit outdated, but worthy of your consideration nonetheless. By its very nature, this book has a different focus from the books discussed above, and so the authors and works considered tend, in some cases, to be unique. For instance, one chapter is titled “Greek and Roman Scientists,” and discusses works by Hippocrates, Theophrastus, Archimedes, Lucretius and Pliny the Elder. Another chapter, “Discoverer of Vaccination” is about Edward Jenner and his book An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae. Other chapters are about the Bible, the works of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Menander. Also discussed are Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler, Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, The Prince by Machiavelli, Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. With 339 pages of actual text and only 27 chapters, Downs is able to delve more deeply into the lives of his subjects and their works than the other authors considered in this post.
There are hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of books about books, and we will delve into more of them in future posts. Meanwhile, develop your plan, and start reading!