Things like Kindle and publishers’ lists are filling with compendiums with generic titles like 100 of the great biggest slammingest books you have to must read before you die! The lists in the back catalogues are the usual worthy offerings- in fiction you’ll find Conrad, Cervantes, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, the usual excellent but safe canon. In Non-fiction luminaries such as Darwin or Machiavelli prevail, but there’s a problem.
Non fiction tends to date quickly as new discoveries occur. Anything written in human evolution before about 2010 will be instantly out of date as it lay before the discoveries of the Denisovans and all the main work of Professor Paabo. So to be frank, works like The Origin of Species, The Golden Bough or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire will provide only limited information on their ostensible subject matters-Biology, Anthropology and History. They are Great Works. But the danger, particularly to the uneducated is getting hung up on them. We came across fans of Sir James Frazer who thought they knew it all about human life, but completely missed the groundbreaking work of Rachel Carson in Silent Spring.
So, when to start reading, and when to stop? How often do you go over a favourite work like War and Peace before you’ve squeezed it dry? And what have you missed in the meantime? Anyone who has ever owned a watch will have noticed that there are only so many hours in a day, and you may have a life to live outside the pages of Literature.
We would love to know our readers views on what is essential learning, and what can be done without. Please use the comments spaces to tell us your opinions because this is a question that you will know the answer to better than us!