Years ago I wrote an essay about what where the classic books of science fiction. I later made it into an web site called The Classics of Science Fiction. I always meant to use the same techniques to build a web site that reveals the all-time classic books of general literature, and not just limit the search to one genre. I finally got that site started at Classic Booklists. It’s just a baby step, because my friends and I hope to do a lot more with the idea.
Until I was fifty, I mostly read science fiction books. Sure, I sampled far and wide, but I stuck to the tried and true genre I grew up with, always looking for my new sense-of-wonder fix. Then I discovered audio books at Audible.com and my reading habits completely changed. Back then, there just wasn’t that much science fiction offered on audio, and so I had to be open to new kinds of books. I started listening to classic English novels, best sellers, modern American literary works, works of history, biography, science and philosophy, anything that was promoted as a great book. I quickly discovered sense-of-wonder doesn’t have to be about rocketships.
Listening to The Bible, and The Bible is the bedrock of all classic books, is hearing the voices of primitive people, the voices of men and women at the dawn of history. The Bible is a gateway to the mind of man before there were concepts like science, history, mathematics, astronomy and so on. Sure, there’s the whole religious angle, but that’s the least interesting take. Just listen to the stories and always remember to ask: Who is telling this story and why? You will experience The Bible as a series of evolutionary stories that do far more to explain our physical world than the metaphysical. It was all about national politics. The Old Testament is very much like the Koran, in that it explains the psychology of radical fundamentalism, which isn’t about heaven or hell, but here and now.
When you read classic books always follow the motivation. Whether fiction or nonfiction, there’s always a mind at work. No matter how engrossing a story is, step back and look for the narrator’s slight-of-hand. There are two narrators to watch for tricks, the one within the words telling story, and the unseen other, the actual writer of the words – and trust neither. For example, within The Bible, who is telling the story about Moses and Aaron? The Bible is often referred to as the word of God, but God doesn’t narrate this story. Did Moses have a PR man cranking out press releases? Did a BC Billy Graham tell stories about Moses in sermons? Did the early chamber of commerce for Israel hammer out their tale for national unity?
Reading Jane Austen will only take you back two hundred years, but she will teach you about the mind of women from any time. Again, what is Miss Austen’s motivation? Is Pride and Prejudice a timeless handbook for romance or for gold digging? Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald tells us about the origins of the 20th century American mind at the ground level. Every French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese novel opens up a mental beachhead into new culture. This is all mind bending, and as mind bending as science fiction feels when you discover it at thirteen.
Each classic is like time traveling to a place and time – for instance Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie takes you to Chicago of the eighteen nineties and shows you a world as far out as any science fictional world. Compare it to Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany and you will see what I mean. They are both about rubes from the country, or in the SF case, a backward planet, struggling to survive in the big city.
American history is really an extension of English history, and reading classic English novels is like working with an Freudian psychologist to explore our hive mind childhood. When you read far and wide in literature and philosophy, you’ll realize that the history of humanity is like the evolution of one great being.
We have to accept Isaac Newton when he said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” as not just true for scientists, but true for everyone. How far you see across time and space depends on the pile of books from which you view reality. Harry Potter novels might be the best of fun, but they won’t help you see very far. On the other hand, they are great books because they aren’t about magic, but contemporary adolescence.
A classic book, a great book, a masterpiece of literature, will educate its readers about the past, and at the same time they reveal a timeless way of seeing the present. A classic book begs to be read again and again, because each reading will reveal more secrets. A classic novel will draw you into history and you will feel like your life is growing in two ways, one forward from your individual birth, and the second, a life that grows backwards, roaming further and further towards our cultural birth. Reading books from the 1950s lets you grok the 1940s, that make sense of the 1930s – and after awhile it’s the 1790s, or the Italian Renaissance, or 400 BC. Suddenly, all of history becomes your stomping grounds.
Reading classic books is like assembling a map of reality one jigsaw piece at a time. In the early part of the 20th century people like Mortimer Adler came up with the educational philosophy of the Great Books, and colleges built liberal arts curriculums around The Great Books of the Western World. This later evolved into Harold Bloom‘s idea of The Western Canon. Of course, these lists of great books require a lifetime of study, more than most people ever want to pursue.
That’s when I got the idea of collecting many such booklists of recommended reading of classic books, hoping to find the essential volumes revealed through consensus. I’m just starting with ClassicBooklists.com. With the help of my friends Mike and Heather I hope to expand it in many revealing ways. I’ve started reading books about books, such as, Leave Me Along, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan, 1000 Books To Change Your Life by TimeOut.com, The Book That Changed My Life edited by Roxanne J. Coady & Joy Johannessen, and the epic, 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall.
The more you read about books the more it’s obvious that no one person, or editors or scholars or poll of fans have an idea of what the perfect classic booklist should be. The Classics of Science Fiction is built from 28 lists, and the resultant list is from any book that shares recommendations from 7 or more lists. Those 193 books represent quite a consensus. So far I have 12 lists for the Classic Booklist site. It will take time to build it up. I plan to add The Classics of Science Fiction list to it next, so we can compare SF books to recommendations for general literature.
So stay tuned.