My 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:
- The Brothers Karamazov
- The Republic
- On the Road
- Leaves of Grass
- The Bible
- Crime and Punishment
- The Catcher in the Rye
- The Grapes of Wrath
- The Sun Also Rises
- Moby Dick
- The Wisdom of Insecurity
- Tropic of Cancer — Tropic of Capricorn
- Big Sur
- The True Believer
- The Old Man and the Sea
- War and Peace
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
- The Odyssey
- Anna Karenina
- The Art of War
- East of Eden
- A Sand County Almanac
- 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.