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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Your book number

by Jamie Lutton
    
I have been recommending books to people for 29 years, more or less, as my job.  People ask me for suggestions, but most of the time, they already have an idea about the kind of book they want. Science Fiction fans want Science Fiction. Literature readers want another novel that suits their pre-formed taste.  A few people are more adventurous, but mostly, people don't want to be surprised, or have to work too hard.
        
This phenomena got me to thinking, and I have a reply worked out.  That is, what an individual's ''book number'' is. I ask you, reading this, to do a some simple math.
           
Take the age you are now. Figure out how many books you read in a week, or say in a month. Take a wild guess on how long you think you will live. The actuarial tables say most people die, on average, at age 78.
       
So, you read a book a month. That is - 12 books in a year. You are, say 48; that means you have about 30 years to live.  Take that 12, and multiply that by 30.  The number is 360.  That is your 'book number'.
       
Now, some years you will read more books; say after you retire. Or you might join a book club, and end up reading a lot more books.  Or perhaps you die younger (hopefully not) than this age.
      
But using this number as a start, you have 360 books to pick out and read.   I suggest, then, that you make those 360 books count.   You need not even read outside your genre, though that might make the rest

I know that, for instance, the great Science Fiction writers are history and science readers, and sometimes poetry and literature. You can tell this by there referring to other writers in their books (and in interviews with them).  I ran into this when I read, as a child, Robert Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.  Out of the blue, he throws in a quote from a poem, and talks about the Greek Parthenon, when he has the teen age hero defending the Earth, when he is put on trial to defend her.  I read this when I was 10 years old, and immediately went and looked for a book on Greek history I could understand, to learn about what the Parthenon was.
 
This book was a juvenile, but really popular adult writers do this, too. In The Stand by Stephen King, the author drops in a reference to Yeats poem The Second Coming.  Most horror readers hunted down that poem, out of curiosity, after reading that reference.
     
Yeats poem The Second Coming is a great hook.  Reading one poem is like eating one potato chip; it often leads to a poetry addiction.
     
The titles of books are hooks, too. So very many books written in the twentieth century take their titles from the King James Bible and  Shakespeare. Brave New World is from The Tempest.  When Miranda first sees humans that are not her father, she exclaims "Oh, what a brave new world it is, that has such people in it".

So all these authors are telling their readers "Look. I am only the gate. There are so many other books you should read".  And in particular, the King James Bible and Shakespeare's collected works.
        
These two books are large, and difficult, as they are written in a dialect separated from us by time, rather than geography.  But I think they should make people's life "book list".

The trick is, you don't have to read either of these books in their entirety.   Shakespeare, you can read The Tempest, Macbeth, the sonnets, and Henry V to start. And not all of the sonnets, even. There is a short number, maybe 20% of them, that are familiar from all the reference to them in our casual day to day English. And the same with Macbeth, Henry V and the others.
    
And the King James Bible is even more copied.  All that is necessary to read (in my own opinion) is Genesis, and Exodus. The beginning of Exodus is the most important part, with it's clear portrait of a evil tyrant, the Pharaoh, and the cruel hand he had on the people of Israel. Genesis is wonderful for its tale not only of the beginning of the world, but of the tale of the fate of Jacob.

And the King James Bible is what I specifically recommend, because it is so heavily borrowed from, and it has beautiful writing. No other translation is as beautiful.  When it is obscure in meaning, another translation at hand can be helpful.
       
The book of Job is not to be missed. When God speaks, it is moving. The atheist and agnostic will not be bored.  The God that roars "where were you when I made the world" and speaks of the Unicorn and the Leviathan, is some of the best writing the West has created, divinely inspired or not.
      
So, read Genesis, the beginning of Exodus at least, Samuel 1 and 2, Job, ecclesiastics, proverbs. Then read the words of Jesus in the New Testament.  The encounter with the mind of Jesus is not to be missed.
         
These two books can be skipped. but they are a start for that 'life list'.   I suggest them, mostly, not only for their beauty, but that all writers after1630 in the English language, till perhaps ww2 heavily borrowed from them for language and inspiration.
        
But even if you want to limit your 'life list' to genres you like, read the very best in those genres.  For the Romance fan, read the very best romances (such as Georgette Heyer, which I suggested last week). For the Science Fiction readers, read Ray Bradbury, Ursla le Guin, and the older writers like Hal Clemet and John Hogan.

For people reading literature, read Chaucer, Milton, Proust. Stretch you mind against the very best.  And for people who prefer non-ficton, try reading original sources in the area that interests you. for the history fans, read the people your favorite writers read to create the books you like.   People who write about Shakespeare read Holinshed, a encyclopedia written in 1575 that Shakespeare borrowed from to write Henry V. Shakespeare's Henry V is word for word a rewriting of Holinshed. (some editions of Henry V now have that passage in the front of that edition).  Or Ovid, where Shakespeare got some of his plots.
   
For people who hate and fear Marxism, read some Karl Marx. For people who hate and fear conservative thought, read Adam Smith.
    
And try reading books that seem 'too hard'.  Some people can't afford college, or forgot a lot of what they learned, if they went. The books that college textbooks are adapted from are lying about, and easy to find.  The trick is to do a bit of research.
   
Americans tend to live in beat up, run down shacks, when next to them, all around them, is the golden palace of the accumulated knowledge of humanity.    And it is free to enter, to come and go.
     
And with such a short time on this Earth, it is not a bad idea to try to read the best.

 ".but at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity......"
                   
Andrew Marvell
                         To His Coy Mistress

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