A few faithful readers have asked me how I am choosing which 100 books to read. The answer is a patchwork. Some of the books are ones that I have planned to read for some time. Others are suggestions offered by friends and family. Some of my choices are dictated by which books are already sitting on my shelves, as my wife likes to point out that I have a pretty good collection of unread titles in my library. Still more are books that randomly spring into my mind, which I then hunt for at Half-Price Books (thanks to a few HPB Christmas gift cards). I try to get a good balance of genres and authors through the course of a year, with an emphasis placed on books and classics that have stood the test of time. My 2010 list gives a pretty good idea of the kind of mixture I am trying to achieve.
The ultimate goal of my quest is self-improvement. I could read 100 works of junk fiction and call the challenge completed, but that would defeat my purpose. I look at every book I read (and encourage my students to do the same) as an opportunity to learn something. Even junk fiction can teach you something about yourself and humanity as a whole. Think how much more the classics can teach. Although my challenge has a stated quantitative goal, it does not ignore qualitative considerations. I am not just reading 100 books for the sake of reading 100 books. Instead, I am trying to read 100 books that I can use to better myself.
One of my favorite paintings of all time is The School of Athens by Raphael. In it, the greatest philosophers are all gathered together in one place, arguing the fundamental questions of philosophy. This is how I view reading. As readers, we have the opportunity to assemble exactly this type of supergroup. I do not mean that I wouldn’t let Dean Koontz or Steve Berry say a word or two in my conversation. But when it comes down to it, if you can learn from anybody, you want Plato, Churchill, Locke, Newton, etc. That is how I decide my 100—I want books that I will enjoy, but I want books that will teach me something even more.