Another Unique “Best Books” List

What You Need To Read To Know Just About Everything - Allen ScarbroughMy earlier reading led me to an idiosyncratic book by Allen Scarbrough, What You Need To Read To Know Just About Everything: The 25 Best Books for a Self Education and Why. I love this kind of thing. For one thing, although I am very formally educated, it is in physics. And that means that just about everything beyond science was pushed out of the way of my education. An old friend of mine who had intended to be an artist insisted on getting a degree in English Literature, because he didn’t want to be, “One of those ignorant artists.” But the truth is that I don’t think any field of study is enough, and if you want to be educated, you need to do a lot of work all by yourself.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole life trying to get caught up on all the things I missed early on. That mostly involves reading a lot of books. I still feel pretty ignorant about science, but given that I know far more science than pretty much anyone I know, I figure I’m covered. Anyway, I was curious about Scarbrough’s list. So let’s take a look. First, here’s the list:

  1. Siddhartha
  2. Walden
  3. The Brothers Karamazov
  4. The Republic
  5. On the Road
  6. Leaves of Grass
  7. The Bible
  8. Crime and Punishment
  9. The Catcher in the Rye
  10. The Grapes of Wrath
  11. The Sun Also Rises
  12. Moby Dick
  13. The Wisdom of Insecurity
  14. Tropic of CancerTropic of Capricorn
  15. Big Sur
  16. The True Believer
  17. The Old Man and the Sea
  18. War and Peace
  19. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  20. The Odyssey
  21. Anna Karenina
  22. The Art of War
  23. East of Eden
  24. A Sand County Almanac
  25. A Brief History of Time

Even though the list is weighted heavily with Russians, it is a very American list! John Steinbeck has two places on the list. And rightly so! Steinbeck is still my favorite English language writer. I quite agree about The Grapes of Wrath. Every American should read it. But I would recommend Cannery Row or even Of Mice and Men before East of Eden. Regardless, you just can’t go wrong with Steinbeck.

I think Scarbrough picked the exact right Hemingway too. Both of those books were very important to me when I was a young man. I dare say (and this is embarrassing) that they taught me a lot about how to be a man. There is important wisdom in those books that our police officers would be well to learn. Just the same, how in the hell do you put two Hemingway books on the list and not one Fitzgerald or Stein? Nix The Old Man and the Sea and add Tender Is the Night. I’ll admit, Stein’s work is still difficult for me.

The most disappointing thing on the list is that he gave two Jack Kerouac books places. Really?! Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t get Kerouac. I’ve never thought much of him. But I understand that I’m not the ultimate arbiter of taste. (Although I should be!) But two books?! Really? I feel much the same way about Henry Miller. Scarbrough was tricky with him — throwing in two novels as one. Maybe he means you can read either of them. In my opinion, that would be true of any of his work. I really don’t like Miller and I don’t feel he has anything to teach me. But I know there are a lot of people who are just mad about him. Imagine some books that could have taken these three (or four) places!

And then we get to the Russians. I have never been able to get very far in either The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace. And I probably should! I like both these writers. Similarly, I haven’t read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And so I’m going to. I’ve requested it, along with Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. I’ll see about getting to the old Russians later.

I think that Siddhartha is a good choice, but there are other Hesse books that would be as good. Walden is a disappointment. I guess The Republic is a book that everyone should read. But I thought they already had! Leaves of Grass is a bit of a problem for me. I like the content of Whitman more than the form. I certainly think people should read him, however. Let me just abstain regarding The Catcher in the Rye, because I’m not exactly objective about it; it is a great book; I don’t really think it is worth reading.

I do think everyone should read the Bible. It is so ingrained into our culture. I think there are large sections that can be skipped however. I do wonder if Scarbrough thinks it ought to be read for its theology. That would be a mistake. It would be better to read someone like Thomas Aquinas for that. But in terms of understanding our cultural myths, the Bible is a must read.

The same can be said for the Odyssey. But apart from the Sirens and Cyclops, there isn’t that much. I think the Iliad is a much better choice in that it teaches most of what you need to know about the folly (and nobility) of man.

As for, The Art of War — okay. I haven’t read it. It seems awfully trendy these days. I think The Prince would probably be better. But you could always read both — they’re short. I had never even heard of A Sand County Almanac, but it does sound interesting. The same goes for The Wisdom of Insecurity. But I think A Brief History of Time is probably a mistake. Not worthless, but a waste of a spot on the list.

Overall, I think the list is rather good. Scarbrough’s idea is that one would carve out an hour or two per day and read all of these books over the course of a year. I think that’s a rather good idea. It might make for a good group project, although two years might be a more reasonable time frame. If I were to change the list, I would only give any author one slot. Also, I would make the list a little less male. There is not a single woman writer on the list, and I think it shows. Should we really read The Art of War without reading Emma? Perhaps I will put together my own list one day.

4 thoughts on “Another Unique “Best Books” List

  1. I think you either have to be quite young or quite old to read “War And Peace” or “Karazamov.” You have to care a lot about how the characters turn out, the way you might as a young person thinking the characters are all aspects of you or an old person who re-examines the emotions of their youth. In middle age, we aren’t too concerned with our identity and way too busy to give a dang about fictional people who haven’t gone through as much as we have.

    “A Sand County Almanac” is a nice choice, one of the first American environmental books. I’ve never read it, but I did read a bio of Aldo Leopold, “A Fierce Green Fire,” that is well worth checking out.

    I’ve never gotten Kerouac, either. His prose is just unreadable for me. I think I’ve read three or four of Miller and can’t remember a word. If I was picking Beats or Beat-inspired/inspiring writers, I’d go with Burroughs, Kesey, or Thompson. But those are subjective views (I’d add a lot more British authors.) It’s a nice list, and doesn’t have any Rand!

    I think the finest-crafted novels I’ve read are the stuff by James, Meredith, Eliott. Those aren’t gateway books, though. The language and social status references are so intricate you can’t just jump into them if you’re not familiar with the genre. “Silas Marner” was a good gateway book for me, and Austen, who is often criminally underrated as a romance writer a la the Brontes.

    • I never really think of Kesey or Thompson as qualifying as Beats. But if you want to go for that sensibility, Kesey is the one to choose because he is so great. Burroughs is amazing at times, but never for a whole book. Some Ginsberg would work too. Any of them would be better than Kerouac, though. (In his defense, I think it was Kerouac who managed to edit Naked Lunch into an actual book. So I don’t doubt his brilliance. I just don’t like his books.)

      I don’t think I’ve read any Meredith. I know what a big fan you are of James. I’m more a Hardy man myself. But you are right: the way to introduce someone to that period of English literature is Silas Marner — just a wonderful book. (I think of James as British — I can’t help it.) And it would help the list in having a female writer — even if she wrote under a man’s name.

      Austen is great and I prefer her to all the Brontes, even though I rather like them too. I think the “gateway” book for her is Pride and Prejudice. And as great as I think Wuthering Heights is, I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone except for a young person of a particular state of mind — over-earnest and romantic. And then, because I’m a mean old man, I’d make them read Sense and Sensibility to show how foolish it all is. [Insert evil laugh.]

  2. Sun Tzu is trendy these days? That’s one of the few on the list I’ve read. I remember being nonplussed by The Sun Also Rises, but I was maybe 19. Wuthering Heights, which you mentioned, was foisted on me in seventh grade English class, and I hated it. I think if you extracted the turgid romance plot from the Star Wars prequels and put it a novel it would be less bad. For a female author, perhaps Ursula Le Guin? Also, there’s no humor, or none I recognize as such. A Thurber book would correct that. I would prefer Orwell and Dumas and Bradbury to some of the selections.

    • Well, I may be kind of out of date. But I still think business types glorify War because it flatters them to think of themselves as great warriors. I should probably revisit The Sun Also Rises. I’d probably hate it now. Hemingway does not age well for me. I think one needs to be a bit older when reading Wuthering Heights. At that age, Austen would be far superior. I’ve never been that into fantasy, but I loved The Lathe of Heaven when I was a teenager. I think some of Orwell’s nonfiction would be good; perhaps, Homage to Catalonia. Dumas is a great recommendation, although I would be hard-pressed to choose. Bradbury has never really done it for me, but a lot of people who I greatly respect love him, so I assume the problem is with me. For humor I would be more inclined toward Joseph Heller, but that’s a good point. I’d thought that I might like to put Neuromancer on the list — it covers a lot of ground.

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