So these are the greatest books of all time? Now what do I do with them?
We’ve all done it, told a little white lie that we have read something, either because we can’t be doing with having to hear a synopsis, or, more commonly, because we think we are going to be judged for not having done so.
Why though? Why should we ever feel that as an English speaking person we are expected to have got through certain books in order to be considered a well-rounded person? Is there ever a ‘most important part’ of the reading list of life, books that have influenced our culture so much that we missing out on some deeper development by neglecting to engage with them?
This year, as part of Academic Book Week, a panel of academic booksellers, publishers, and librarians compiled a list of the most influential scholarly books of all time and then opened them to the public vote.
The shortlist stands at:
A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawking
The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft
Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
Orientalism, Edward Said
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
The Complete works, William Shakespeare
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
The Making of the English working class, E.P. Thompson
The Meaning of Relativity, Albert Einstein
The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris
The Republic, Plato
The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine
The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart
The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
Ways of Seeing, John Berger
What is particularly intriguing about this list is that it does not conform to what we might conventionally call ‘academic books’; that is to say, they are not nonfiction texts written following extensive research, usually by a specialist in that area. Texts like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Complete Works of Shakespeare reveal the how we now define an academic book as one that challenges our real-world assumptions. Moreover, the variety of books is to be celebrated for breadth; it includes environmentalism, feminism, art criticism, and economic, moral, and social philosophy. As Neil Smyth, senior librarian Nottingham University faculty of arts, said “This list of academic books will lead to debate and controversy, but, more importantly, to reading. All of these books are available in the University library where I work, and they will be available in libraries and bookshops around the country for people to discover and rediscover.”
What now then? I have given you 20 academic texts that ‘changed the world’, should you just go and read them?
With any luck, you will get through at some point and be able to make loose critiques at dinner about contemporary political leadership by citing Platonic clichés like ‘The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.’
Ultimately though, one of two things is likely to happen: a) you will stop being invited for dinner or b) you will come across someone who, like you, has read the book but, unlike you, has not taken the time to understand or more importantly critique it.
This comes back to the change in our understanding of what an academic book is: if an academic book is one that challenges us, then we are missing the point if all we do is read and regurgitate like an over-attentive mother-seagull. The value placed on these contributions to the canon does not mean that we should take them at face value or set on some pedestal beyond our critical reach; instead we need to engage the skills that the education system begins to nurture in us at A-Level and that we ought to be making individual efforts to cultivate throughout our lives:
So you have successfully got through what Sparknotes called ‘very long and almost unreadable due to its dry prose and complex terminology’ and by philosopher Roger Scruton as “one of the most difficult works of philosophy ever written.” You have established that Kant is addressing the question of ‘how do we know anything?’ and boiled this down to his revolutionary thesis: we have knowledge of things like causality, not because of the structure of the world, but because of the structure of our minds, and even ploughed through his mind-bending discussion of metaphysics. You have likely emerged, if not having a minor existential crisis, then certainly wide-eyed and overly introspective.
But what was the point of that experience? I would argue there wasn’t really one if all you are going to do is cross it off your bucket list and let it settle in the out regions of your consciousness.
No, let’s thrash this out.
- Why does it matter?
- What does the academic, authorial, and historical context reveal?
- What does the text achieve and what is the author’s contribution to his field?
- What responses exist and what debate has developed from it?
- How does it impact and influence us today?
Dr. Michael O’Sullivan, tutor in Philosophy at Kings College London and author of the Macat Analysis of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, identifies the two primary critical thinking skills needed to properly engage with Kant’s text as Creative Thinking and Evaluation:
‘Creative thinkers are able to bring a new perspective to questions and problems, look at things from a different angle, and show them in a fresh light. Kant achieved this by mediating between the two major schools of philosophical thought concerning knowledge- empiricism and rationalism- to create a complex third way. Where empiricists believe all knowledge is founded on reason alone, Kant evaluated their arguments and proposed a third position- one incorporating elements of both but with specific limits. As infamously dense as it is profound, Kant’s Critique shows creative thinking operating at a level few can aspire to reach.’
This is likely going to sound like I am back-tracking on my last 6 paragraph rant, but I urge everyone to go and read these books.
Yes, many of them are tough, but if they gave up their souls that easily, they likely wouldn’t have stood the test of time. We need to pick them up without reverie and go to work but go to work with the tools to grapple with them at hand, tools like the Macat Analyses.
We must all continually endeavour to read with a mental pencil in our hands, packing the margins with our own questions, opinions and ideas; because these books that ‘changed the world’ don’t matter a jot if they don’t change our world now.