Reading Fifty Books a Year – a necessary civic duty

I have always wanted to read at least fifty books a year – approximately one a week, like a chain smoker, only this habit was healthier.

During my youth, sports, studies, work, girls, dreams all got in the way of reading those fifty books a year. When I tried to squeeze books in among those “higher priorities”, I only managed a handful. When marriage and family came along, I abandoned the idea completely, sticking instead to the newspapers, TV and the odd business book that my boss tossed at me, saying, “You will read this book. It’s good for your career.” Oh yes, and I read Dr. Seuss to my children.

At the age of fifty, when family had grown and gone, and jobs had come and gone, and dreams no longer came, I realized that I was a literary illiterate; only I was honest enough to admit it among my peers. I’d walk into a giant bookstore or a library, look at all the accumulated knowledge sitting in there, and feel intimidated and diminished. I felt that I had wasted my life.

And so I finally started reading my fifty books a year, a few years ago. I have read a couple of hundred so far and I feel that I have moved a millimetre. At least I can name•drop, “Joyce? Dante? Kafka? – oh, yeah, I’ve read them. And Woolf, and Conrad and Chekov too!” I realize that I have only skimmed the surface – the more I read, the less certain I am.

But here is the $64K dilemma, and I’m not in it alone. There is a whole generation out there like me—the yuppie generation—and we still run the world, I think, even though a few Gen X’s are dislodging us quietly. Thus, should I conclude that the world is being run by a bunch of literary illiterates? Is that why we continue to have wars and stock market collapses and famine and “us against them” and crime and “have’s vs. have•nots”? We have no sense of history of man’s foibles over the centuries as told in these books, so that we could develop the common sense to avoid them. For Pete’s sake – that guy Machiavelli confessed to all of what we have committed today in the name of progress, but how many of us have read and been shaken by The Prince or The Art of War? Instead, we repeat history and say, “Oops, sorry! Didn’t know that would cause a problem.”

So my fervent prayer is that everyone of us yuppies, puppies, Gen X’s and Y’s solemnly promise to read at least fifty books a year – good books, not trashy pulp fiction where only the bad guys win, and the good guys are also thinly veiled bad guys. Hopefully, in about 50 years—if the planet lasts that long—the treasure trove of accumulated knowledge in those libraries will seep back into us again (after all, they flowed out of our predecessors when they were written) and we will have a more enlightened, less dogmatic, more caring, more sharing society, with a sense of stability drawn from history.

In the meantime, I am off to read book number 43 for this year. Given that it’s August, I am on track to reach my goal for the fourth year running. How about you?

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