The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@

What book have you not read that has most in­flu­enced your life? That ques­tion popped up dur­ing an on­line browse for books and, af­ter read­ing it a few times, I had to ask: how can a book you haven’t read in­flu­ence your life?

It takes a few sec­onds but then the an­swer ap­pears – as a list. There’s the Bi­ble, of course, a book that has shaped our world but one I barely read even in cat­e­chism classes. And there’s the Ko­ran, which is still shap­ing bat­tle, political de­bates and air­line queues, but wouldn’t be recog­nised by half the world’s read­ers. In fact, many of us have skipped religious books en­tirely.

If we skipped the­ol­ogy, surely we’ve read some of the philo­soph­i­cal books that un­der­pin the com­mon un­der­stand­ing of who were are? The Sym­po­sium by Plato (nup), Pol­i­tics by Aris­to­tle (no), Cri­tique of Pure Rea­son by Im­manuel Kant (zip) On Lib­erty by John Stu­art Mill (afraid not). It seems it’s quite pos­si­ble to lead an in­formed life with­out read­ing much phi­los­o­phy. And no, The Con­so­la­tions of Phi­los­o­phy by Alain de Bot­ton doesn’t count.

A few sci­ence books are among the great un­read. The Ori­gin of the Species wouldn’t be on too many li­brary shelves; Primo Levi’s The Pe­ri­odic Ta­ble es­caped my at­ten­tion; Rachel Car­son’s Silent Spring, which kicked off mod­ern en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism was only skimmed; and as for A Brief His­tory of Time, 10 mil­lion copies of Stephen Hawk­ing’s clas­sic have been sold but they have yet to find a reader.

This is get­ting em­bar­rass­ing. We all like to think we’re in­formed but it seems that the books that have in­formed hu­man ways of liv­ing, think­ing, lov­ing and fight­ing have es­caped the no­tice of many of us. Let’s keep go­ing.

Political books are al­ways pop­u­lar, so many of us would have read Mein Kampf (yes, no?); what about Das Kap­i­tal (skim­ming it for a uni es­say doesn’t count); how about The Art of War by Sun Tzu or Machi­avelli’s The Prince?

Eco­nom­ics has a huge in­flu­ence on our wal­lets and yet even some econ­o­mists didn’t get through all of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Na­tions, many are re­ly­ing on lit-crits for Thomas Piketty’s Cap­i­tal in the 21st Cen­tury and, even though we get the gist, most of us haven’t read Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serf­dom. I know many of us have read Freako­nomics but the au­thors of that book have yet to crack a seat on the Coun­cil of Eco­nomic Ad­vis­ers.

Of course, there are any num­ber of lit­er­ary clas­sics that haven’t had their spines cracked. There’s Proust’s Re­mem­brance of Things Past and Joyce’s Ulysses, The Can­ter­bury Tales, The Heart of Dark­ness and most ti­tles in Don DeLillo’s oeu­vre. But th­ese books don’t have much clout out­side of din­ner-party boast­ing ses­sions.

Per­haps the books that most in­flu­ence our lives aren’t the doorstops you find in pres­i­den­tial li­braries. So, let’s move be­yond the big shelves and in­ves­ti­gate the pa­per­backs. Cer­tainly, Ben­jamin Spock’s The Com­mon Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in­flu­enced the lives of ba­bies born af­ter World War II but was ob­vi­ously un­read by them; Ger­maine Greer’s The Fe­male Eu­nuch was more dis­cussed than read; and many peo­ple have an­a­lysed their dreams, fan­tasies and odd­i­ties with Jun­gian ex­per­tise, even though they’ve never heard of Dreams, Re­flec­tions.

More pro­saically, Charmaine Solomon brought spicy food to Aus­tralian sub­ur­bia but doesn’t fea­ture in many kitchen shelves; Zen and the Art of Mo­tor­cy­cle Main­te­nance launched a gen­er­a­tion on to the hip­pie trail even if they didn’t bother with me­chan­i­cal skills or Zen.

Many of us have found our­selves be­ing de­scribed, pre­scribed and some­times de­tained be­cause of the Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders with­out rif­fling through any of its 582 pages. And when we lose our jobs to some dig­i­tal in­ter­face, many of us will wish we’d read I, Ro­bot by Isaac Asi­mov.

By this time, many of us will be feel­ing a lit­tle naked. How did we miss so much of the world canon? The only ques­tion re­main­ing is, what books have we read that have been a big in­flu­ence on our lives? I fear that list will be shorter.


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