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?