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.
Amy Hunt said:
I applaud your reasoning behind the books you are choosing for your list of 100. I see that you gave a nod to the value of reading junk fiction and on that point I would disagree with you.
I prefer to refer to that genre as Escape Literature and would argue that reading in and of itself is a form of self improvement–perhaps not philisophically but certainly psychologically and as a way of exercising the brain. The Escape Authors of our society–ranging from King to Grisham to Brown to Rowling, et. al.–offer our society . . . and our young people . . . the ability to “escape” a potentially stressful reality and to exercise our imaginations. These are the things that television, video games and other forms of technology have stolen from us. This is the gift this genre has restored to us . . . escape and imagination.
This is why I read . . . and why I hope the youth of today are reading as well. The classics have their place and their value . . . but Escape Literature has value as well.
I acknowledge that what you call Escape Literature and I call junk fiction has value. I would just argue that the value is limited in comparison to the classics. There is certainly an intrinsic value in reading as a mental exercise, but the value of the “escape” can be equally achieved through other means. Technology does not eliminate the possibility of escape. I think a good movie, an engrossing TV show, or a great piece of music can give the same escape as a work of Escape Literature. In fact, the appeal of TV and video games lies in the very escape that you claim junk fiction has restored to us. What is TV if not an opportunity to put ourselves in a different reality than the one we occupy everyday? There are many examples of movies, TV shows, and music that are just flat out bad. The same is true with books. That is why an emphasis should be placed on the classics. They can offer the same escape as lesser works, but offer a further value– the value of improvement. To be fair, technology can offer many opportunities for self-improvement. The classics just offer more. There is nothing wrong with picking books simply for the escape, but reading is most valuable when it provides both escape and a chance to better oneself.