Should you start reading “great” books in 2017?

A good book can teach you about the world and yourself?

I’m reading a book. The title is “How to Read a Book.”

It’s about learning how to read a book for understanding, rather than information or entertainment (ex — popular fiction, business, self-help). Books from authors like Homer, Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre. There’s even a list of recommended books at the end, listed in order of the authors’ birth, from 9th century B.C. to 1918–2008.

But what good are these books? Are they really so great? Should I prioritize them — with their dubious usefulness in my life — over business and other immediately practical books?

I am not into philosophical discussions (of the useless kind), especially of “shoulds,” that can never be true in the real world — things like, why people *should* all be equal, “good” stuff like yourself as a professional or your products *should* succeed without having to market, or good intentions *should* be enough.

I have no interest in becoming a pompous, pretentious, navel-gazing prick that’s useless to the world.

Still, I love reading. Learning the skills to be able to enjoy and appreciate the great books would be an end unto itself.

I’m reading Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I’ve been ogling War and Peace (recommended by Mark Manson) and Ulysses (recommended by Neil Strauss) in the bookstore, wanting to buy them… But stopping myself, because they will just add to my pile of abandoned books.

Hope to finish these guys someday

I have this vague idea that they will write their way into my heart and enlighten me in some life-changing way. Teach me life’s most important questions like why are we here, where do we go, and how come it’s so hard (thank you, Jack Johnson).

Do they “work?” I don’t know. I’ve never finished them.

Really, I am just wondering if you can help me understand the value of attaining the skill of reading the great books, the books over my head, that will stretch me. Will reading them lead to a life well-lived, a life I could not have accessed otherwise? Or is it just to become a know-it-all who talks everyone’s ears off about having read all these books that only other people who’ve read them care about?

What “great books” (however you define it) have you read? How has it made real life better for you?


This post first appeared on Medium.com.

  • DT

    You got it wrong, you don’t read so-called “great books” FOR anything just as you don’t love your family FOR anything. You read them for the humanity in them, for what they can show you that would normally be not so easily accessible to you.

    A few weeks ago I watched an interview with the late Roger Wilemsen, a German man-of-letters so to say. He was asked about his view on literature, about having read a lot in his teen-years and he said that by the time he was 20, literature had allowed him to have lived many lives: as black person in 19th century America, as a woman in a muslim country, as an aristocrat in 17th century England, etc. and with that comes empathy and a certain life experience.

    Incidentally, with The Brothers Karamazov, you have picked on of the deepest novels of all time. You will probably put it down at some point, but just keep going and pick it up again a few weeks later and make your way through it, I’ll promise you won’t regret it.

    I really dislike Kurt Vonnegut, but there’s a great line in Slaughterhouse Five (perhaps the only great line in the book): “Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more, [in the light of the atrocities of WW2, the book is about the fire-bombing of Dresden]” said Rosewater.”

    So go ahead! I’ll be curious to read your review in a few months.

    • Hey DT, awesome comment. Thank you. Especially on empathy, I’ve always heard people say reading builds empathy but that paragraph of yours was the clearest illustration I’ve seen. Also, thank you for the advice and encouragement on Brothers Karamazov, so pumped to read it.

      Re: why read great books — But aren’t humanity and otherwise-inaccessible-wisdom good reasons to read them?