“A book unread is a book unloved.” That truism has guided me throughout life, especially when it comes to classic literature books. But sometimes even the gentlest human heart has only so much love — or so much space — to offer.
I was confronted by this sad truth in 2018, when I was forced to downsize my belongings, including a large chunk of my personal library.
This presented me with a painful dilemma, as I stood before my 1000+ books deciding what to do with them.
I scoured book review blogs online, trying to find advice from someone who had experienced that same quandary. Sadly, the effort turned up nothing.
I thought about putting my books in storage. But then I pictured what mice and mildew can do to defenseless pages. That idea was out.
I considered caching them in a waterproof, underground bunker hidden deep in the hills. But my budget precluded that option.
For one dark, godforsaken moment I even considered selling them. That of course was unthinkable.
As I pondered the problem, the answer came to me like an essay penned by the Great Author in the Sky: why not just give them away?
Ridiculous, I thought. That would be like giving away my children!
Again the idea presented itself: why not just give them away?
“No!” I snapped, my face flushing with defiance. “Part with my books? Never!”
After rebuffing the idea a second time, I assumed that I had banished it forever. But I was wrong. Undeterred, the notion bypassed the mental blockade I had erected and wormed its way into the deep, Freudian recesses of my psyche.
So it should come as no surprise that a few minutes later, I snapped my fingers and blurted out, “I know; I’ll donate them to charity! What a great idea!” Unconscious impulses always make sense, when they disguise themselves as carefully deliberated decisions.
Okay — one decision made, a million more to go. Which books would I keep and which ones would go to Goodwill? That question set the stage for a literary adventure that would change my life.
My Lifelong Love Affair with the Printed Page
The written word is my life. It always has been, since well before my parents enrolled me in first grade back in 1972. I was able to read before I could ride a bike or brush my teeth.
But, while my childhood was rich in many intangible ways, it was decidedly lacking in terms of practical assets; i.e. cold, hard cash. This meant that whatever reading material I owned was invariably in the form of a second- or even third-hand tome.
Fortunately, my mother was a capable and devoted scrimper and scrounger. She never passed by a yard sale without picking up a few new volumes for the home library.
Topic and title were beside the point, as far as she was concerned. They were books, they had words, they offered intrinsic value; simple as that. As a result, our home was filled with everything from hard-core pornography to the Holy Bible, all within easy reach.
This made for some peculiar pairings at times. Steinbeck and Hemingway sat on the shelf next to Essays on Eroticism and Everything You Want to Know About Sex. Musty, dog-eared paperbacks resided next to handsome leather bound tomes that must have once graced the homes of the wealthy and powerful.
My parent’s free-range approach to child rearing left me free to explore whatever topics tickled my fancy. Once, on a sleepy summer day, I read my way through Animal Farm before switching to Conan the Avenger.
That evening, I fell asleep to a pot boiled detective novel, in which every woman was blonde and buxom and every real man smoked Camels.
Such were the intellectual and cultural influences that molded me into the man I am today. But I digress; back to 2019.
Seeking Sagely Advice
Faced with the challenge of selecting the books that would remain, I sought the counsel of those wiser than me. I recalled something I read once, a quote by a famous academic, in which he said that a person could gain a wonderful education by reading a set of books no more than five feet long.
Google led me to the author of the quote. He was Dr. Charles W. Eliot, who served as president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909. The volumes he recommended are now known as the Harvard Classics. They’re a common sight in used bookshops across the country. They’re also available online, either new or from sites like EBay.
I can’t fault Eliot for his choices. After all, he was president of Harvard for 30 years. I’m just a bald guy with a blog. Nonetheless, after perusing his list, I realized that many of his selections were simply not my cup of tea. They’re heavy on poetry and drama and light on philosophy and science. They also include a number of fragmentary works, giving them an unsatisfying “greatest hits of the ages” ambiance.
Most perplexing of all, Eliot included The Odyssey but not The Iliad. Why? Are the antics of Ulysses more memorable than the saga of brave Hector facing off against a bronze age terminator? Not by my standards. Thanks for the input, Dr. Eliot. I’ll keep it in mind.
I next turned for advice to Mortimer Adler, an American philosopher and public intellectual who compiled the collection entitled Great Books of the Western World.
Overall, Adler’s list was more to my taste. I even purchased a pre-owned set of his selected works online, with the intention of reading through it one weighty volume at a time.
My enthusiasm for the project soon waned, however. The collection tries to stuff too many words into too few pages. The text is tiny and the pages are laid out in double columns, neither of which lends itself to reading pleasure.
I had other problems with Adler’s list. One was its exclusion of works from the East or by female or non-white authors. The Dhammapada, Frankenstein, and the letters of Martin Luther King, Jr.provide insights on a par with anything produced by Plato, Emerson, or the early church. Why should I deprive myself of potential enrichment due to accidents of gender, race, or geography?
After pondering the problem for a few months, my mind traveled back in time to the motley crew of misfit tomes from my childhood. What if I could recreate it for the Internet Age, selecting only those works that still appeal to me? That should give me enough reading material to satiate me for the rest of my life.
If You Love Something, Set it Free
Thus inspired, I began selecting the volumes that I now call my “essential books.” I settled on three guiding principles for my project:
- Diversity: my list of books would include works from around the world and across the ages. It would incorporate female authors as well as non-whites and non-Westerners.
- Economy: I would stick with Dr. Eliot’s five feet rule. The final collection could occupy no more than 60 inches of linear space, or about 1.5 meters, for those outside the US. The nature of the task meant that electronic books were out of the question.
- Universality: each book would have to offer fresh epiphanies every time it was opened. This meant there was no room for Sam Spade or Conan the Barbarian. Sorry, guys.
The project occupied my spare time, and my spare change, for several months. Here’s the final result:
Like the home library of my youth, the set includes a variety of cover and print styles. Most of the books are used, purchased either online or at local bookshops.
Some of the books are crisp and unopened; others are filled with underlined text and hand-scribbled notes made by the previous owner. I enjoy seeing a book that has been read before; it imparts character to the pages.
Some of the books fit in my back pocket and can be taken anywhere. Others are best read at a table or desk. Altogether they stretch 59.5 inches from end to end. Their pages are finite, but their truths are infinite. Here are three examples of what I’m talking about.
ANIMAL FARM: WHY OPPRESSION NEVER ENDS
Animal Farm is an allegory about the Russian revolution. It satirizes the tactics used by Lenin and later Stalin to drive out the wealthy ruling class and end centuries of political and economic oppression.
Tragically, the Communists did away with those horrors only to replace them with fresh ones. The peasants were still butchered, only this time it was done in the name of the proletariat instead of in the name of the Czar. The victims were equally dead either way.
This pattern repeats itself throughout human history. The oppressed throw off their chains, only to become the new oppressors. Why does this happen? Perhaps it’s because the leaders of the revolution have more in common with the existing tyrants than they’re willing to admit.
Animal Farm explores this dynamic with dark humor, and does so in a scant 141 pages. It’s an absolute must for any well-stocked library.
THE TAO TE CHING: SOMETHING FROM NOTHING
Why do artists and athletes talk about being “in the zone?” Why does intuition play a role in decision-making, even when objective data is abundant? Why does strict materialism fail to account for everything we see in the Universe, such as consciousness?
The Tao Te Ching has answers to these questions. But the answers are often as mystifying as the questions themselves. The text begins by saying “the Tao that we can comprehend is not the true and eternal Tao.The names that we give the Tao are not the true and infinite names.”
So what the heck is the Tao? It’s whatever gives form and substance to the universe. It’s the emptiness that makes everything possible.
All of us know the Tao is there. We use it every moment of our lives. We wish we could analyze it, engineer it, stick it in a bottle and sell it. But we can’t. Whenever we try, it dissolves into nothingness; yet it’s still there.
The ramifications of the Tao are more than philosophical. They affect the practical side of our lives as well. Have you ever had a moment in which you were engrossed in an activity and “you” seemed to fade into the background?
The work continues, the task is completed, you get the credit. But, looking back on the experience, you can’t remember actually being there. It’s like something else took over, using your hands and eyes to do things that you never imagined possible.
That’s the Tao in action.
This book comes as close as possible to putting words to something that’s beyond words. Read it and you’ll understand, even if you don’t. Trust me.
SHIRLEY JACKSON: EXPLORING THE SUBTLETIES OF EVIL
An odd choice, you say? Perhaps a better word is “subtle.” That’s the thing about evil, after all: its sheer subtlety, as Shirley Jackson understood well.
Only rarely does evil come rushing at us like a freight train. Most often, it creeps around the edges of our consciousness, like a shadow that remains undispelled, even at midday.
Evil is the disease in your DNA, the smiling psychopath on the street, the alligator that watches you and your family frolic in the sunlit pond.
It waits its chance, always alert for the opportune moment. When it strikes, the power of its subtle machinations are irresistible.
Literary horror, when done well, is our macabre yet meritorious friend. It keeps us alert to the evils all around us. It reminds us to lock our doors, to buckle our seat belts, to say “thanks but no thanks” to the shifty-eyed stranger offering help.
Fear, when exaggerated beyond all rationality, can wreck our lives. In the right proportions, however, it can save us from unimaginable suffering. So feel free to explore the works of Shirley Jackson, a horror writer in the very best sense of the word. But keep an eye out, just in case.
Why Stop Here?
After finishing this project, I realized that I had just begun. The lessons to be found in the great books are as inexhaustible as the Tao. Future posts in this blog will explore these timeless themes.
I welcome you to join me in this ongoing adventure. But, even if you decline my invitation, please give some thought to creating your own five feet list of essential volumes. You may find that donating some of your books gives you more of what you want from them in the first place: insight, adventure, and a road to discovery that stretches forever.