The New Lifetime Reading Plan
by Clifton Fadiman & John S. Major
378 pp. New York
Reviewed by Burndett Andres
One prominent online bookseller offers thirty-one million titles. An extraordinary bibliophage might expect to read ten thousand books in a lifetime. Quot libros. Quam breve tempus! How can the average person know which books are worthy of his valuable reading time?
Allowing that each individual will discover what they prefer to read for pleasure and circumstances will conspire to indicate what reading must be done to acquire specific information, how does one select books for general erudition? At a tender age and quite by chance, I discovered a way to improve the odds of reading the crème de la crème of western literature; I could seek the advice of experts. The New Lifetime Reading Plan is the condensed wisdom of men whose lives have been devoted to reading and culling the best from the rest. They know the territory and act as guides; their input demystifies the esoteric, illuminates the obscure, inspires the overwhelmed and instructs the bewildered.
The first book list I ever saw was “One Hundred Best Books” given chronologically and included in a 1946 publication of the Personal Improvement Guild of New York, NY. It had been compiled by Henry Seidel Canby, Hugh Walpole, Albert Shaw and Edwin Mims, all unknown to me, but all recognized as “authorities in literature” I was assured. Since I greatly desired to improve personally, I took this matter of broadening my mind very seriously. The first book on the list was The Bible with which, being the daughter of fundamentalist Christians, I was more than usually conversant. Books two through thirty-three, roughly Homer through Shakespeare, were totally unknown quantities; Pilgrim’s Progress, number thirty-four, was familiar, having been bedtime reading in my extreme youth, but the balance was again a mystery. Interesting note: George Eliot was the only female writer included on this list, unless we accept the possibility, lately advanced, that The Odyssey was written by a woman.
I met some of the writers on this list during my school years. It’s probably safe to say that most students learn something of Hawthorne, Melville, Dickens and Twain. Surely every college student at least hears of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and some of the great Russians. Much attention used to be paid to the poets Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, etc. as well. Thus we all glean a little knowledge of “the classics,” and there the matter often remains for the balance of a lifetime. We’re often comforted by the knowledge that they are there, but who reads them?
Circa 1970 I came into possession of another book list. This one had been prepared “by the Editorial Advisory Board of the Easton Press for the 100 Greatest Books Ever Written...” Clearly their purpose was commercial, but I was interested to note what books this list had in common with my original one and how the advice of the experts might have changed in thirty years. Only Virgil remained of the Romans; all the English poets except Keats and Robert Browning were now considered non-essential or at least unsalable; the great novelists roughly from Hawthorne through Twain, chronologically, remained; of the later novelists, only Stevenson, Kipling, Shaw and Conrad were again included. The ladies were coming on strong; Charlotte Bronte, Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe joined Ms Eliot. Times, they were a changing.
By 1998, Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major realized that a worldview was needed and they seriously revised Fadiman’s previous offering. A lifetime reading plan directs the investment of a portion of our reading time so that at the end of the day we will have read, and hopefully absorbed for our betterment, the best of the available literature of our culture. This has traditionally been regarded as being advantageous in creating well-rounded persons and thoughtful citizens. The New Lifetime Reading Plan suggests that in today’s world, it is not enough to be conversant with the classics of western literature. In our global neighborhood, they submit, it may be wise to incorporate the best of diverse cultures as well; after all, in today’s world, a reference to the Koran may be as likely to appear in your Sunday paper as any Biblical reference.
To this end they recommend a multicultural lifetime reading plan and include works from the Oriental traditions, plus what they consider the best of African, Indian, South American and Latin American literature as well. This presents many implications that could be considered at length. For example, The Bible is absent from The New Lifetime Reading Plan with the explanation given that “we assume that nearly every reader of this book will own a Bible and be at least somewhat accustomed to reading it; and there is nothing we might try to say about it that would not seem presumptuous.” The Koran, on the other hand, is suggested. It is very interesting to note how these plans evolve over time, how they change as certain ideas and authors go in and out of fashion.
Although the new list replaces The Bible with The Epic of Gilgamesh, the early Greeks survive and the Romans, Virgil and M. Aurelius. The Arabian Nights made all three lists and Dante, Chaucer, Montaigne, Cervantes and Shakespeare are still considered “required” reading. Wordsworth is the only surviving English poet and now two Japanese ladies writing in the late tenth century, upstage Jane Austin as the first female writer included. The great early Americans are all on the list - Poe, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville and Twain – and the all time favorites, Flaubert, Dickens, George Eliot and Hardy as well. The Russians Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and the German, Nietzsche, continue to be favored with Shaw and Conrad as the most modern of the writers still uneclipsed. Harriet Beecher Stowe has given way to the now popular Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. In fact, nine of the one hundred thirty-three writers on the primary list are women. The new view is western with a noticeably global flavor.
There are two additional features of this book that make it even more useful. The first is the addition of a section called “Going Further” which presents and briefly annotates one hundred (fourteen are women) twentieth-century writers of interest. The second, the bibliography, is hugely helpful as it presents preferred translations and editions and suggestions for further reading under each writer.
The American writer and theologian, Henry Van Dyke, said, “There are more than a hundred good books in the world. The best hundred for you may not be the best hundred for me. We ought to be satisfied if we get something thoroughly good, even though it be not absolutely and unquestionably the best in the world. The habit of worrying about the books that we have not read destroys the pleasure and diminishes the profit of those that we are reading. Be serious, earnest, sincere in your choice of books, and then put your trust in Providence and read with an easy mind.”
The New Lifetime Reading Plan is your friend, a partner that will facilitate this effort. It does not have a bossy or preachy tone, but rather encourages and stimulates. It is a useful guide, a time-saving tool and great reading in its own right.
2003 Book Review for Wolf Moon PressReference Maine, At Last - Settling In (Vol. II) Page 178
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