What are the 10 books that every well educated person should read? It all depends on the definition of ‘well educated’.
The television show Two and a Half Men was largely trash. But it was clever, hilarious trash, and occasionally its cutting humor cut a little too close to truth. In one episode, ‘That Special Tug’, Alan has a breakdown in a bookstore over all of the books he has not read, and probably will never get around to reading.
Indeed, why doesn’t anyone speak Sumerian any more?
I mention this clip because when I was a kid, a news magazine polled various writers and other thinkers, and asked “What are the 10 books that every well educated person should read?” It made me feel like Alan. Giving us books we ‘should’ have read, but probably will never have the time to read, is just intellectual abuse. But still, if I ever have the time… I like the Jorge Luis Borges quote, “I have always imagined Paradise will be a kind of library.” It gives me something to shoot for.
Anyway, over the years I have thought about the question. Books are critical; so what are the 10 books every well educated person should read?
I looked around the Internet for some ideas. Most of the lists I found are dominated by novels, and even more by recent novels. There is this list from The Independent, from Powells, and from Publishers Weekly. HuffPo has this list, but it only has one book beyond classical antiquity, and nothing more recent than Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I also found this clever word cloud, but overwhelmingly, the books are novels, and mostly from the past few decades (unfortunately, the click-through on the page to the larger image doesn’t work).
Previously I invited friends to contribute below, and on my facebook page. I’d like to offer my own thoughts on the 10 books the well educated person should read, but feel free to weigh in with the books you think are important, below.
It occurs to me is that the problem calls into question the word ‘educated.’ What does that mean? What is the product? Our educational traditions say becoming ‘a well-rounded person’ is a major goal of education. What is a ‘well-rounded person’? What is the value? I argue that our traditional approaches to education are partly designed around exclusion. A ‘good education’ is designed to separate the narcissists in the upper classes from the rest of us. If we are ‘well educated’, we should be able to quote Shakespeare and Homer so that others will recognize us as part of that elite, well educated upper class.
In this approach knowledge becomes a static thing, a badge that marks your place in a hierarchy; the gentleman should know how to eat a pear with a knife and fork; he should wear bespoke suits; he should know how to shoot, to ride, to fence, and to dance. And the proof that he is well educated is that he has matriculated from the finest schools, which teach little of practical value.
My thoughts are that education should produce citizens for the democracy, who must be life-long learners. And thinkers. And contributors. Education should not be a static thing, not a repository of books, subjects, and proficiencies, but a set of intellectual tools for analysis, synthesis, and innovation.
Given that, I submit a very different list of the 10 books that every educated person should read. Please note that the last one should be the result of the first nine; it is really the one book that every educated reader should read.
- A book of major works of the dominant writer of one’s language (in English, Shakespeare).
- The dominant religious text of one’s culture (in the West, the Bible).
- An overview of world history.
- An introduction to statistics.
- Any intermediate book of musical études.
- Any book in a second language.
- An introduction to physics.
- An introduction to biology.
- An anthology of literature and poetry.
- Any book the reader has written.
‘Old Books’ courtesy of Gellinger on Pixabay.