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Our education is judged as much by the books we haven’t read as those we have. It’s a sad fact that no matter how well-read we try to be, we simply cannot read everything. Not even close. 

My reading includes many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I have read Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around my Room, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis of the Deified Claudius (Alternately, the Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius, antedating the apocolocyntosis of Donald Trump by two millennia), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.  

That tendency to seek out so many obscure books has meant that I read Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile long before I ever finished Moby Dick. In fact, I have read almost all of Melville, from Typee to The Confidence Man to John Marr and Other Sailors, and his poetry, in Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War. The problem with Moby Dick was not the book, but me. I love the style of Melville so much, that every time I picked up Moby Dick, I started again from the beginning. Over and over. I must have read “Loomings” 50 times. I have since gotten through the whole thing, and I love the book dearly. Reading Melville is like eating a meal as rich as foie gras. 

I mention all this because, while I have read Xenophon’s Anabasis, and enjoyed the hell out of it, I have to confess, I have never quite been able to finish Thucydides. Herodotus charms the heck out of me; I can’t count the number of times I have gone back to his Histories, but old Thucydides always feels a bit turgid, dense and humorless. I feel I gain as much from reading a summary of his Peloponnesian Wars as from trudging through the full-length. I may be mistaken in that belief, I grant. But the fact is, I have limited time on this planet, and of the making of books there is no end. 

The number of books I know I should have read is immense. Yes, I have read Tristram Shandy (the funniest book I have ever read), but I have never read Jane Austen. I hope to get around to it some day. I have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I have not yet read Proust. (I have a similar problem with Swann’s Way that I had with Moby Dick: I have read the first 50 pages several times, and each time, I start anew.) 

I only got around to Tolstoy’s War and Peace last year. I don’t know why it took me so long. It may be the greatest book I’ve ever read. I still haven’t tackled Anna Karenina, although many years ago I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata. 

The holes in my erudition are wide enough to sail an icebreaker through. Yet, I count in this world, as a fairly well-read man. 

Sometimes we feel guilty for things we should not. The guilt hangs over us like a dark cloud, and we live our lives believing that everyone knows. I am confessing my guilt here, and the obvious fact that I am a fraud. 

Among the books I haven’t read are: The Aeneid (it bores me every time I pick it up); Don Quixote (I’ve tried, believe me, but it just goes on and on and never seems to get anywhere); Les Miserables; Sons and Lovers; The Tin Drum; Lord Jim; Rabbit, Run; Orlando; The Handmaid’s Tale; Dr. Zhivago; Jude the Obscure. I could go on. 

There are whole authors I have managed to avoid: Aside from Austen, there are: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, J.R.R. Tolkien. All of them worthy and important. Among the writers I have avoided because of being forced to read them in high school, and therefore destroying my ability to even bear them are Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Forcing kids to read books well beyond their ability to understand them can only ruin those books for life. 

From the list of the so-called greatest books on the website thegreatestbooks.org, I have read 19 of the top 25 volumes on the list and 31 of the first 50. That seems decent, but it leaves off too many books that I should have read. 

Prominent among them are more recent writings. I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Tao Te Ching and Beowulf many times in different translations, I have somehow managed to miss Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Khaled Hosseini, Annie Proulx, and Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Shakespeare & Co., Paris

I swear, I know this is a horrible confession. I am one ignorant S.O.B. Yes to Suetonius, no to Dio Cassius; Yes to Longinus and Lucretius, not so much for Josephus or Livy. 

What I blame is not so much my waywardness, but the fact that it is impossible to read everything. The last person to do that, according to his biography, was John Milton, who took several years off after university to read everything ever written in a language he could read, and that included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and, of course, English. But much has been published since then, and even a specialist cannot read everything just in his or her own field. So, we pick and choose.

And if, like me, you choose not to be a specialist, and not get a post-doctoral degree in the subspecies of Malagasy dung beetle, so as to become the world expert in such, the purpose of reading is not to master a particular field, but to take as wide a view of everything as possible. 

One could certainly find a list — such as the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf — of those books deemed by consent of the educated to be the most important and slog your way through them one by one so as to round out your erudition. But I have chosen a more desultory strategy, picking those books that appealed to me. After all, I read primarily for pleasure, not by obligation.

And let’s face it, the five-foot shelf of a hundred years ago is now rather dated and fails to include much that would now be considered mandatory. Things change. 

So, I make my own list, and if it includes H.L. Mencken and doesn’t include Fenimore Cooper, so be it. Although I did get huge pleasure from reading Mark Twain’s exploration of Cooper’s “literary offenses.” I recommend it. 

hisitory mosaic

History is endlessly fascinating.

If I were restricted to one class of reading, history would be it. I am not alone. Whenever politicians are asked for their favorite books, they seem to be history and biography (even as you suspect that the list was actually compiled by an aide), and the busiest corners of used bookstores seem to be the history sections.

When I was a boy, devouring the school library, I avoided fiction. “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true,” I told my parents — misunderstanding the nature of truth, as one is likely to do in the second grade.

History provides at least four important things for the growing brain. In order of ascending importance, they are:

Entertainment — A well-written history is fun to read. When you are reading Barbara Tuchman or Edward Gibbons, you are reading a page-turner. As one history lover has written on his Web page: “It’s not the facts or dates we want. We want, for a time, to be the person who rode out of Paris to go on a Crusade, and rode past serfs tilling the land, dressed in browns and blacks because they were forbidden to wear bright colors by law. We want to feel the pride of being French, thinking that we could defeat the German army because, we are French! But alas, the Germans crush us anyway. What did we feel then? Tuchman tells history as a story, and makes us feel the wonder of the connection we have with all the myriad, strange, and beautiful humans who have lived and died to bring us to where we are today.”

Guidance — Reading history shows you what other people have done when faced with situations similar to those you may find yourself facing. You can benefit by their mistakes as well as their successes. It is also useful to know history to recognize the prospects for current policy choices made for us by government. Should we get into this war?

Before entering Syria, we might want to re-read our Herodotus. We wish to god George W. Bush had read it before going into Iraq.

But you don’t have to go all the way back to the Persian Wars. You have a different view of it if you know the history of the division of the Mideast into mandates after World War I. If you want to really understand the recent presidential elections, you must know the organization of the Roman imperial and republican governments and the sway they held over this nation’s founding fathers. The roots are that deep.

The saddest truth of all — after Jean Renoir’s quote from Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons” — is that, pace Santayana, it is not those who don’t learn from history who are condemned to repeat it; those who have learned their history are the ones who see it repeated endlessly. To those who know nothing of history, it’s brand spanking new each time it happens.

Humility — More important than reading popular histories, though, is attempting to do some actual history, yourself. Few people ever give much thought to what a historian does. I suppose if you asked the man on the street, he would say a historian reads a lot of books and then writes his own. But history is altogether more difficult and tenuous. For what is history? (I know Gibbon himself gives one answer: “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”) No, history is the tentative answer to the puzzle of missing parts. history tondo

A historian sifts through the extant records of a time long extinguished and attempts to piece them together in a way that makes convincing sense. He reads letters, court records, newspaper accounts, bank statements, weather records, church chronicles and royal edicts; he attempts to put them in chronological order and reconcile the inconsistencies; he has to weigh which records to trust and which to doubt; he has to be familiar with the biases of the times, to know what “code words” mean — and each age has its code words.

You can do some genuine history for yourself: Attempt to write the story of your grandparents, for instance, using your parents’ recollections, old family Bibles, family snapshots, birth and marriage certificates. You will be astonished at two things: how difficult it is to make it all coherent, and how fascinating it is to make the attempt. And that leads to the fourth and most important thing history can bring us.

Respect — If there is a single sin that is most widely committed by the public, it is that of presentism — the belief that people in the past thought and acted just as we would, only without the benefits of modern technology.

In fact, those in the past not only thought differently, they lived in a world differently defined: Things which were manifest to them are ignored by us; things we find self-evident, they never gave a thought to. What we learn is a different kind of humility. Not just the humility of the historian knowing what effort it takes to recreate the past, but the humility of knowing that there are other ways to organize and value the world than those we currently take for granted.

We wander into church in shorts and shirts; our grandparents wouldn’t have dared. They lived in a more formal world, in which the formality expressed respect. We live in a culture that values independence and individuality. Other cultures valued group cooperation more highly.

History shows us that we aren’t always “right” and the past isn’t always “wrong,” but that at all times, we are seeking to know and do what is real and just, but are blinded or frustrated by the biases of the day.

I’m not talking about excusing our slave-owning founding fathers but understanding how they believed the world to be organized by the divinity they believed in. Understanding is different from judging. If we recognize the sincerity of Thomas Jefferson, and not just the hypocrisy, we may allow the possibility that we, living now, may be just as guilty of another sin, which we ourselves cannot see clearly.

History makes us less self-righteous. And the less smug, the less likely we are to make evil on our fellow human beings. This is why the last aspect of reading history is the most important.