One for the Books

Do these improve chances for college admission?

A long time ago we hired an interior decorator to improve the decor of our interior.  He stood in the living room, assessing one of my treasures, a floor-to-ceiling system of shelves laden with books.  After a moment or two, he rendered his professional opinion.  “You need more yellow books,” he said. 

That was quite a revelation, because for years I had made book-buying decisions based only on authors or subject matter; it had never occurred to me that the color of the book’s cover was an important consideration.  For aesthetic reasons, I should have been judging a book by its cover.

The findings of a 20-year study by a University of Nevada sociology professor might support the conclusion that content doesn’t matter.  The recently-released study, which analyzed data compiled on more than 70,000 people in 27 countries, found that having books in the home had a major impact on the educational level of the children who live there.  Just having books around the house propelled students several years deeper into studies than other factors did.  Being raised in a home with a substantial library is twice as important as the father’s education level, for instance.  That pattern persisted across the different GDPs and politicial systems of the countries studied.

Simply stated, in homes that had books, children attained higher levels of education than those in homes that didn’t have books.  (I’m not sure how Kindle counts, by the way.)

What I found odd is that the study, published online in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, didn’t mention anything about the kids, or their parents, actually reading the books.  Can that be possible, that the mere presence of any old books in the home makes a kid want to go to college?  Maybe, but I’d like to believe that reading To Kill A Mockingbird is more inspirational than merely glancing at the spines of Janet Evanovich mysteries on a shelf.  I don’t have any research to back this up, but it’s my bias that some books simply matter more than others.  Especially if you read them.

With that in mind, here is a short list of books that deserve to be within reach of anyone who has an interest in learning…

•  The Bible.  Whether one thinks of it as the revealed Word of God or a collection of myths, this book has undeniably been more important to Western Civilization than any other.  Its influence on literature, music, art — and religion, of course — has been enormous.  That’s surprising in a way, since relatively few people have actually read it.

•  Novels by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and the Bronte sisters

•  Essays and short fiction by Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Garrison Keillor, and David Sedaris

•  Nonfiction:  anything written by David McCullough or Barbara Tuchman; Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson; Working by Studs Terkel

•  A good atlas

•  Plays by William Shakespeare (Hamlet and Julius Caesar for starters), Arthur Miller, and Molière

•  A couple of illustrated art books, possibly inlcuding Art: A New History by Paul Johnson.  Among its other virtues, that book has a yellow dust jacket, so it will look great on your shelf.

This list is ridiculously brief, and doesn’t include science books, or poetry collections, or the Baseball Encyclopedia.  So — what else is missing?  What book (or books) do you consider essential reading?  Maybe another way to ask it is, what made you want to further your education?

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6 responses to “One for the Books

  1. Interesting topic. I’ve heard of that study too and haven’t got any ready explanation for it either. I do know that many kids have an innate interest in books and if books are around they’re naturally attracted to them. And I believe that if they learn early on to enjoy reading books they have a much better chance of one day achieving a high level of over-education and unemployability. Meanwhile I’d say a really well-stocked library should include, in the literature wing, along with your choices, Homer, Cervantes, Swift, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, George Eliot, Henry James, R. L. Stevenson, and Conrad. And that just gets us to the mid-20th Century when authors decided any book that you could read without getting a migraine wasn’t worth its salt and choices start getting much more subjective. But along with what are probably the modern “automatics” (Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Nabokov, etc.), I’d argue mightily for Raymond Chandler and P. G. Wodehouse, two of the great prose stylists in the language.

  2. Woody Allen has a series of comically absurd books of short stories that I like to reread every couple of years. Not exactly part of the Western canon, but if you’re looking for yuks, he runs circles around Dostoyevsky.

  3. While rarely finding time to read any book a second time, I have managed to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden” more than once and certainly would not mind taking those journeys yet again. You mentioned John Irving’s novels — “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is probably my favorite book. My recent faves include “Olive Kitteridge” and “Let the Great World Spin.” Confession: My stack of “to be read someday” books is almost taller than I am — but then I’m not THAT tall, am I? One last thought — I’m a huge fan of Robertson Davies — a Canadian writer. Thanks for taking me to my shelves, both the real ones and those in my mind.

  4. Starting kids off in the direction of reading also involves books accessible to them. Before a year old, I’d suggest Best Word Book Ever by Richard Scarry and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Among the hundreds of books available to toddlers are two classics — Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Cuddling or putting an arm around the child makes reading more than just about the book and adds another positive to the reading-out-loud experience… for both parties.

  5. Oh dear, I’m overloading on possible “essential reading” answers – I must have grown up in a house filled with books (though not enough yellow ones). Where to start? Just finished and loved Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. For newer classics, we also need On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and yes, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye! Maya Angelou, Alice Walker (esp. The Temple of My Familiar), Barbara Kingsolver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Neil Gaiman are favorites. Sci Fi/Fantasy: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, The Stand by Stephen King, Weaveworld by Clive Barker, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Giver by Lois Lowry. Another Country by James Baldwin, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – love! And Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books for laughs! I’m not a huge poetry buff, but love Pablo Neruda, Shel Silverstein and Gary Snyder. Wait – Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins! City of Thieves by David Benioff! Childhood fave The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster! Or a little later, Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier! The Diary of Anne Frank! Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea! The Good Thief by Hannah Tinit! OK, I need to get reading – thanks for the great post!

  6. Anything by E.B. White for some of the most graceful use of the English language I’ve read. David McCullough’s “John Adams.”

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