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.