(Written 22 May 2011)
Dear All,
My attention had been drawn to the site claiming to list 100 books one simply has to read: http://www.onlineschools.org/2009/11/03/100-essential-reads-for-the-lifelong-learner/
The first thing that came to mind when I saw this was the Jimmy Durante song, The day I read a book, which has wonderful lines like, “… it wasn’t a history, I know, because it had no plot, it wasn’t a mystery, because nobody there got shot…”
In Cosmos (1980), Carl Sagan did a quick calculation to show that if any one of us were to read a book a week, we could probably only get through about 2500 to 3000 texts in a lifetime, which is less than 1/1000th of the material that would ordinarily be available to anyone who lives near a good city library. The advent of electronic media like Kimble and Ipods has multiplied the availability of books by some marvellously immaterial factor because our capacity to read all this stuff is as limited as it ever was. The trick then, as Sagan points out, “is to know which books to read”. Which is why a list of  100 Essential reads for the Lifelong Learner is such a useful device.
Agreed, this list is US-centric with glaring omissions (HG Well’s Outline of History, Dicken’s Great Expectations and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front come immediately to mind) and while the Great Gatsby is a good read, it certainly would not top my list of essential classical fiction. From book #76 onward I can suggest at least 15 other than those listed that I think more essential, but that said, everything on the list that I have read I would certainly recommend, with the odd caution here and there.
Caution? #60, Zorba the Greek, I found impossible to read… as is #91, Newton’s Principia. For a superb overview of physics look no further than Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind (1999). Book #93 is not Feynman’s best contribution to physics (as it happens, I have a copy of Six easy and Six not-so-easy Pieces on my desk at the moment). For Feynman I would recommend QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. And of course, to deal with the question as to how physical and social science connect, one would have to include something by Jacob Bronowski; almost anything he has written.
I have to make special mention of a book in the History section, of which I do have a copy on my shelf, and it is #74, Battle Cry of Freedom. For a year or so, while living in America, I became very interested in the American Civil war (I actually managed to work my way through Shelby Foote’s three-volume tome, #66, amongst others, and visited a couple of battle sites), so it was a great pleasure to read James McPherson’s superb account of the Civil war for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Be sure to make time to take it in at some point in your life. If not for the history, then simply to admire his skill in telling the story. On that score, I must mention Hendrik Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, a great introduction to history for young readers,
Finally I would suggest that on the list of ‘100 essential reads’ there should be a play or two (Shakespeare’s Macbeth) and an anthology that includes poetry from the non-English speaking world. Oh yes… and be sure to make a space for Karen Armstrong’s A History of God.