There are books that everyone has heard of, are frequently discussed in various circles and yet almost no one has ever actually read. Here is my list.
1. The Bible
When I was a young person, the Lutheran church gave every kid, upon reaching a certain age, a copy of the Bible. Being an avid reader even then, I plowed through it from start to finish. Chapter upon chapter of so and so begat so and so. All the disjointed stories of the old testament, the list of rules in Leviticus that make almost no sense to the modern reader, you name it. I only recall a fraction of it now, but I read it once upon a time.
It is not my intention to get into a religious debate. But there is something that has always bothered me about a lot of fundamentalists. If you believe this one book is the actual written word of God, shouldn’t you read it? But in many churches, this is not how it’s done. Instead “Bible Study” is largely learning a few choice phrases out of context and very little actual reading of whole books in context.
And yes, I know, a lot of people have read the Bible. Still it belongs on this list because the number of people who have read it pales to the number of people who claim it as the holy testament of their religion.
2. The Big Book
Sometimes called the blue book or even the big blue book (not the one you find car prices in) because the dominant cover is a light blue. Written in 1939 by Bill W. one of the founders of AA, the Big Book is a long rambling testament, laying out the twelve steps, peppered with lots and lots of anecdotes about people who have been helped by them.
As AA has grown to become the predominant treatment for addictions of all kinds, the Big Book has undergone many editions and printings. It is handed out in meetings, sold in bookstores and passed from hand to hand by many people.
The quintessential symbol of what the Big Book has become was a recent TMZ photo of actress Lindsay Lohan entering a nightclub clutching the Big Book, as though it were a talisman to prevent relapse. Perhaps her recovery would have gone better if she had stayed home and actually read the damn thing.
I work in mental health and our unit always has a half dozen copies of the big book floating around. One night I got curious enough to crack the Big Book and see what it’s all about. And I have to say, I tend to agree with the non-readers on this one. It’s long. It rambles. The twelve steps are pretty well known by now, and explained more concisely in other books. The Big Book remains important as a testament to the history of the movement.
3. The Constitution
The Constitution of the United States of America is not really a book. I include it in this list because it shares so much in common with the first two books on the list. It’s often held up as a symbolic emblem by people who haven’t read it and are often arguing against it.
I won’t open an ugly can of worms by discussing politics here. However, in my school days every student had to read the Constitution and at least attempt to understand it. Judging from the state of politics today, I doubt many people have done either.
4. Atlas Shrugged
Love it or hate it, Ayn Rand’s objectivist manifesto, Atlas Shrugged in one of the most important works of the twentieth century. A large chunk of the Neo-libertarian Republicans in politics today swear by Ayn Rand’s philosophical world view.
If you want to appear intellectual and hip among that crowd, you must have a passing familiarity with Atlas Shrugged. But if you try to engage such people in debate you will find that it often ends at a passing familiarity.
Honestly I am not a fan of either the philosophy or the book. Judging the book solely on its literary merits, it’s long, dense and stilted. The characters are flat and spend most of their time espousing Ayn Rand’s philosophy rather than interacting with each other. I tend to agree with reviewer Dorothy Parker, who said, “This is not a novel tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” And all the pseudo-intellectuals that quote Ayn Rand should be forced to read her entire collection for themselves.
5. Anything by James Joyce
“For this, O Dearly Beloved, is the genuine Christinne: body, and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, Gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.”
James Joyce is the great grandmaster of the modern novel. Stream of consciousness? He practically invented it. He revolutionized novel structure. He wrote in his own Irish accent and voice, and in doing so championed a new literary form. His work is some of the most scrutinized and studied in all of literature.
The literary snobs of the world will sneer their contempt at anyone who suggests that they would prefer to read something, well, a little more readable than most Joyce. Which probably explains why literary aficionados everywhere tend to agree with the snobs, mutter an apology for not having “gotten around” to Joyce and quickly change the subject.
6. War and Peace
Tolstoy’s great masterpiece about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia is a giant of a book. Everyone knows its a masterpiece and one of those books you ought to read. But they never seem to get around to it, put off by the size of the book or the long Russian names.
It’s too bad, because it really is one of my favourites. How I finally got around the size of the book was to realize, it’s not any longer than many of the fantasy series I read regularly. If you have read all seven of the Harry Potter books you’ve devoured more pages than War and Peace. So grab a copy and get cracking.
7. The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx’s short little book, The Communist Manifesto belongs on this list because it’s influence far out reaches it readership. It has spawned revolutions, been the primary influence on numerous communist, socialist and marxist governments. But how many people have actually read the manifesto?
8. The Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese classic, penned by the sage Lao Tsu. The book is second to only the Bible in terms of the numbers of language it’s been translated into. It has been enormously influential in the east. It has been seeping into western thought since it’s translation in the mid eighteen hundreds.
Carl Jung was influenced by the Tao Te Ching. Many of the new agers, from Wayne Dyer to The Secret, will quote freely from the Tao Te Ching.
But reading the book is another story. It’s an ancient spiritual text and it tends to be dense and obscure at times, not what you would call light reading. Which explains why so many people talk about it, own it, but few have actually read it.
That’s my list. What books would you add?