Tuesday, September 30, 2003
I think I've been pretty good lately at avoiding talking about anything newsworthy. I haven't opined on Dick Grasso's departure from the NYSE (unfortunate and undeserved, I think, and a function of the unfortunate decision by the NYSE not to go public, which would have required it to split the SRO from the money-making exchange); I haven't opined on the Wilson/Plame affair (I'm concerned, in the dark, and waiting to hear more); I haven't even said anything about the disastrous Cancun round of trade negotiations (it would be too depressing). I've said precious little about the California gubernatorial race (why, precisely, is the GOP happier about Schwarzenegger this year than they were about Riordan in the last real election?).
And I admit, not trying to be topical or relevant has been a real relief. So here's a totally irrelevant topic to keep everyone amused and fill up the comments box: what are the 10 most important books you've never read.
I'll take "most important" to mean: the books that would make the most difference to you, on a deep level. Not the technical books you ought to read for your job, or the books you feel guilty about not having read but don't think you'd get much out of: the books you know you should have read, that you think would be significant to you if you read them, but that you haven't managed to pick up or get through.
Here's my list, in no particular order:
1. Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War
2. Virgil: Aeneid
I really can't believe I haven't read either of these books. But it's worse than that: I haven't read *a word* of either of these books. I've only read parts of Herodotus, for example, but I give myself credit; no such luck with these two. It gets worse still: I've read essentially nothing written by citizens of the Roman Republic and Empire. My classical education is highly defective, clearly. Why do I think they would matter to me? Well, Thucydides is a classic of history, of political science, and of rhetoric, three things I care a lot about. And the Aeneid made the cover of the latest Weekly Standard, so it's obviously highly relevant. Anyhow, New Year's resolution: read these two books.
3. The Talmud
My ignorance of the Talmud is essentially complete. I never studied it in school, and I've never studied it on my own. Oh, I've probably looked at a handful of pages over the years, but nothing that would count as actual study. This is a major religious lapse on my part - and it's not as if I've been without opportunities. The Talmud is a hard text, by all accounts, and one doesn't read it; one studies it, preferably with a partner. So, another New Year's resolution, to (at least) crack open a volume of Talmud with a study partner.
4. Aristotle: Poetics
5. Ruskin: The Seven Lamps of Architecture and/or The Stones of Venice
6. Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals
I've read some late 20th-century literary and art criticism that I like a great deal (some of Northrop Frye's stuff on the Bible and on Shakespeare, for example), but I am insufficiently grounded in basic aesthetic ideas. The fact that I haven't read books like the above might be a reason why. Some people might be surprised by the inclusion of Ruskin in the above; I'm looking for a great Christian writer on aesthetic matters to balance two great pagans (one the consummate Apollonian, the other the consummate Dionysian), and Ruskin immediately came to mind. Also he's writing about architecture, a subject I care about very deeply (as all New Yorkers should), and which is rather different from the other arts, so reading him might throw some interesting light on the pagans.
7. Wordsworth: The Prelude
My education is poetry is abysmal, as bad as my education in the Latin classics. I have read bits and pieces of this and that - a good bit of epic poetry, actually - but nothing systematic. It is a major objective of mine this year to correct this defect in my education. It is too late for me to acquire a fluency with poetry; you need to read this stuff when the mind is still plastic, and that period is probably over by the time one hits twenty-five. But I can still read. And if I am going to get an education in English poetry, I need to read the poet who more than anyone represents its modern beginning. Besides which, from what I hear and from shorter poems, I suspect I would like Wordsworth a great deal. So here's another New Year's resolution: read the Prelude.
8. Bialik: Songs
Chaim Nachman Bialik is the founding poet of modern Hebrew literature. I read a handful of poems as a child, but they did not lodge in my brain. Who knows why; I was a kid, and I had very little interest in literature. Now, I want to go back and see what I missed. While I am pretty well-versed in Israeli politics, know many Israelis, am at least somewhat familiar with the land, I am badly ignorant of its great literature. Reading Bialik would be the right way to begin: at the beginning.
9. The Mahabharata
I've read most of the Hebrew Bible many times over; I've read much of the Christian New Testament; I've read Homer, a good bit of Plato and Aristotle, and some of the Pre-Socratics; I've read a little of the Quran; I've read the Epic of Gilgamesh and fragments of Canaanite Epic from Ugarit; I've read some Confucius, some Chuang-tzu, and (for what it's worth) Lao-tzu's little book. But I've read essentially nothing from the vast literature of ancient India. I doubt I could possibly get through the entirety of the Mahabharata; perhaps a more realistic target to set my sights on is to read the Gita. But be that as it may. To at least dip a toe into this vast ocean would significantly expand the horizons of my mental world. Plus I have a funny feeling I'd like it.
10. Gonick: The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume III
All work and no play makes Noah a dull boy. Volumes I and II are among my favorite books. I appear to be the only Gonick fan not to have known that Volume III came out a year ago. Off to the bookstore!
So, gentle readers: what are the 10 most important books you still haven't read?