What to Read and How to Read It – Part 1

So far I’ve only completed two books this year.  The first was The Plague by Albert Camus, and the second was Longitude by Dava Sobel.  Some people would say that those books are awfully heavy reading.  I disagree.

The Plague

When you mention the name “Camus” to many people they immediately decide that his work is too deep to read, but the English translation by Stuart Gilbert that I read made Camus’ novel as accessible as any novel I could have chosen.  Camus was an author, journalist, and philosopher.  The Plague is, on the surface, a novel about an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Algeria, but it is much more than simply a story about people who die from a disease.  It is a work that asks us questions about morality, and the belief on faith along that what happens to us has a divine purpose.  It is a work that may make us uncomfortable, but it will also make us think.


Dava Sobel is a gifted science/history writer, and Longitude tells the history of the search for a way for sea-going ships to determine longitude – that is, where they are in an east-west direction.  Many people will learn what the subject of Sobel’s book is and immediately decide that it is too complex and dull for them.  Who wants to struggle through a dry science book, especially one in which clocks, of all things, play a central role?  Once again, I must tell you that Sobel’s book, like Camus’ The Plague, is very easy to read and understand.  She definitely has a knack for writing about science in a way that makes it immediately understandable.  And the outrageous schemes that some proposed for solving the longitude problem are truly bizarre but hilarious.

You can read each of these books in at least two different ways.  Both can be read quickly and enjoyably because they are essentially stories about people.  On the other hand, you can think about some of the deep ideas that Camus presents – ideas that a friend of mine might call part of “the human condition,” and you can take time, if you’re so inclined, to learn a little science from Sobel’s excellently written book.

My point is this: too many people think that books like those mentioned above are beyond their comprehension (or their interest), so they never give them a try.  Sure, some books are more difficult than others, and you may have to train your mind to concentrate a little more on them than on the books you ordinarily read, but you can and should explore some of them.

I began attending a Great Books discussion group over 40 years ago.  Over the years the group has read things I had never considered reading: ancient Greek plays, stories by Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Balzac, essays by Montaigne and Pascal, and plays by Shakespeare, Karel Čapek, and John M. Synge.  I admit that you don’t get a full understanding of such works by reading superficially.  You don’t have to be a genius to understand what Montaigne wrote, but you can’t read his essays the way you read the latest novels by Stephen King or Danielle Steel.  It takes a little time to train your brain to read Montaigne just as it take a little time to train your body to do the exercises that build up your muscles.

I started my own book club (which is based on the Shared Inquiry method developed by the Great Books Foundation) shortly after I retired in 2006.  Here is the list of works we have read and discussed:

  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
  • Othello by William Shakespeare
  • Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone by Sophocles
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Histories by Herodotus
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • The Orestia by Aeschylus
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  • The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Dubois
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Utopia by Thomas More
  • Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
  • Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
  • Candide by Voltaire
  • The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • The Awakening (and the short story “Desirées’ Baby”) by Kate Chopin
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • The Aeneid by Virgil
  • The Prince by Nicolò Machiavelli
  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
  • Selected Essays by Michel de Montaigne
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  • Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka
  • The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill
  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • The Iliad by Homer
  • Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello
  • The Federalist Papers (selections)/Common Sense by Various Authors
  • The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
  • Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Tempest by William Shakespeare
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Faust (Part 1 only) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and “The Bear” by William Faulkner
  • Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  • A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul
  • Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
  •  “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson and “Caesar” by Plutarch
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  •  “Youth” by Joseph Conrad and The Aspern Papers by Henry James
  • The Red and the Black by Stendhal
  • Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca and The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
  • Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen and “Boule de Suif” by Guy de Maupassant (1 play and 1 short story)
  • The Plague by Albert Camus

During the remainder of 2015 we will read the following works:

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
  • Lancelot by Walker Percy
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty and Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter (2 novellas)
  • I Claudius by Robert Graves
  • Sidhartha by Herman Hess

Note that the next book, Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, is part of a genre known as “magical realism.”  Many people have never read a work of magical realism, so making sense of this book may take a bit of effort – more brain training.  But, to me, that’s part of the pleasure of reading.

The people in my book club are smart, but more than that, they have elected to take time to train their minds to read and understand some pretty impressive and diverse books.  And I can tell you that we have had many truly wonderful discussions since the club began.

There is scientific evidence that reading challenging books is healthy for your mind.  Minds grow just as muscles grow when they are exercised.  So spend a little time each week reading something that makes your mind expand a little.  Read the things you like, but also experiment with writing that is different from what you are naturally drawn to.  And give yourself time to become interested in this new material.  Don’t throw it aside the first time you find it a bit boring or challenging.  Stick with it.

Regardless of what you read, you need to plan how you will read it.  That plan will, to some extent, depend on the type of book you’ve decided to read. For example, you wouldn’t read The Plague and Longitude exactly the same way just as you wouldn’t read a novel the same way you would read a legal document you were about to sign.

There have been numerous books and articles written about how one should read a book, and about how to read different types of books.  In Part 2 of this series I will give you some general pointers on how to read a book effectively, and in Part 3 I will talk about how to best approach books of different types.  I will not get to those posts immediately, so while you’re waiting, take time to make a list of books you find interesting but wouldn’t normally tackle.  The list of books my group has read might be a good starting point.

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