While I’m not a huge fan of lists like “the top ten best books of our time!” or “The 100 Books you Should Read Before you Die!”, you can’t deny the practicality of having a “most read” list. On the one hand, I hate to choose which books “count” and which books don’t (it just smacks of pretention and arbitrary snobbery). On the other hand, it’s tough to pick out something once you’ve left the world of summer reading lists and curricular assignments. Having some rules and guidelines can be helpful.
But like Laura Palmer, from The L. Palmer Chronicles, I worry about canonical “must read” lists. As she explains, they impart a competitive spirit, not an intellectual one, feel arbitrary, and skew priorities. As she so elegantly puts it:
Apparently, when we arrive in the afterlife, our first thought will be, “But I never finished reading Animal Farm!”
I admit to feeling something like that – wishing I could live forever so I could read and learn everything. Alas that I cannot! And so, Palmer asks, “How should we choose what books to read?” Her answer is excellent:
I believe we should find our own path through the wondrous maze of books available to us. We should also use lists and reviews as trail maps to find the vistas and highlights others talk about. As we walk this path, we should keep our eye out for exploration and discovery. With our eyes open, wondrous things may be found.
Also, in the midst of reading great literary works, it must be remembered that reading can be fun. This is why, every so often, I put down an Important Book and pick up the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series. This is like mint and chip ice cream after a swim on a hot day.
Personally I tackle the question in the same way I would tackle building the syllabus of a new course. Once I get a good starting point, I try to think in general ideas. What would deepen this perspective? What would challenge it?
How it works:
First, you pick up something that looks exciting, and from there look for your next few reads. The starting point can be anything. A car repair manual. A magazine article. A short story. Anything.
Then, figure out what you found most interesting about this book, and what you’d like to explore. If you start with a fiction book, look for a non-fictional counterpart, like a biography of the author, or a historical tract on the time period. Find a detail in the book to research, look up recipes the characters make, find a counter-point piece, or read an academic work on it. Find similar books, and then search for works on the genre in general. I’ll even toss some movies and radio programs in there. The directions you could go are endless, so I tend to pick something thematic in order to narrow things down.
Let’s say I start with The Hunger Games. There are a lot of themes that would make for interesting syllabi, so the hardest part is picking one. I chose to explore the political implications of hierarchical societies and exploitative resourcing. In our terms, that’s imperialism and colonialism. If you read The Hunger Games and you think about reality television, that’s fine too – you can’t really pick a wrong theme.
First I’d want to get a general sense of the literature on colonialism. I like A Very Short Introduction series for this purpose, but a general internet search would probably yield a sufficient enough overview.
After that, I’d probably want some history. A lot of the options would be too general, so I’d look over the book jackets and online reviews until I find one that piques my interest and speaks to my theme most clearly (in this case, developing power structures and seeking natural resources). My pick here is Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.
Since Hochschild makes a lot of references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I’d read that next (I recommend getting an edition that includes Conrad’s “Congo Diaries”). Here, I’d probably pick up a few new themes to chase. I’m a big proponent of reading the supplemental materials in a book – introduction, preface, etc – in order to help find these themes. Since I’m a philosophy student, I’d likely end up looking for the ideological reasoning behind colonization and its critiques, turning to Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, and Aime Cesare’s Discourse on Colonialism.
From there, I could continue on, double back to the start to follow a different theme (maybe looking into dystopian young adult fiction and moving onto Divergent), or just take a break and find a whole new starting point.
The most important thing for me is to follow my impulse – I try not to force myself through a book I think I’m supposed to read (unless, of course, I really do have to read it for some reason). I have a lot of these little syllabi, ranging from “serious and important” all the way to “frivolous and silly”. My goal is always to find the track that will keep me reading rather than the one that will look impressive or work through some “official” canon.
Ironically, doing this often leads me back to those “must read” books in the end – except when I get there, I’m excited about it.