Read Old Books to Think Great Thoughts

Today there is more to read than ever. Traditional and social news sites are filled with the latest buzz stories repeated ad nauseam. One is pressed to keep up. Amid the endless competition to make headlines and build traffic there is no enduring value.

When I read exclusively new material for an extended period I lose confidence. Each story seems to blend together into meaningless jargon. I feel empty and depressed. Nothing matters because whatever I learn today will be old news tomorrow. If you are someone searching for meaning in life, I am sure you have felt this way as well.

Whenever this happens, I have learned to turn back to the classics, the old enduring books that have stood the test of time and retain their luster. The common perception of old books is that they are antiquated and useless. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We believe, with our technology, that we have reinvented life. But this is not the case. The gadgets that surround us are minor details, the essence of life remains unchanged. It feels the same to be alive today as it did a thousand years ago. Look into yourself and you will know this is true. We are still lone souls confined to our thoughts, facing the same challenges.

Everything has its particular place. Old books cannot give you the weather forecast or teach you to write a javascript. But what they will teach you is how to live. They will teach you what it means to be human. They will give you a firm place to stand against the assault of constant change. The wisdom of the greatest human minds passed down through centuries is our most reliable asset.

I am not alone in this opinion. I leave you with this passage from the immortal Albert Einstein.

Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best the books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely nearsighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.

There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste with a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind.

Nothing is more needed than to overcome the modernist’s snobbishness.

  • Greg Morneault

    John,

    Any suggestions for great classics? I love to read but find myself all too often surrounded by modern thought and theory. Any advice would be much appreciated.

    • http://www.simplestocktrading.co.in S Sundaram

      One of the books that I always enjoy reading is “The Prophet” by Khaleel Gibran.

      Why don’t you start with this one.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Great question. The place I would start is “Self-Reliance” by Ralf Waldo Emerson. It is an incredibly inspiring essay. The English is dense, you should read it more than once, but it is well worth it. I keep going back to it and love it every time.

    Of course there is also Shakespeare. He isn’t universally accepted as the greatest English writer for no reason. I need to read more of him.

    I could recommend a thousand things but those are a good place to start. The best part is you can read all of this stuff for free at http://www.bartleby.com .

    • zwitdh

      Thanks alot for the website. It;s really good .

  • http://notyet howard devore

    I’ve been reading some of the classics that have been on my shelves unread for too long lately, for this reason.
    Here goes:
    The Gambler, Great Gatsby, Agamemnon, and now Animal Farm.
    I’d recommend any/all of these, they’re all good.
    These kind of books are dirt cheap in charity/2nd hand shops, so I get *books* because its good to get away from the tft, and cos books are nice objects, and also its good for my kids to see me reading books for pleasure.

    If you wnt to read shakespeare but end up procrastinating, try readng the revengers tragedy, its the bawdy trashy equiv from that era or thereabouts! :)

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Howard,

    I completely agree about books being a great hobby, especially for the money. My only problem is not having enough time to read most of the used books I buy.

    I’ve been discovering Orwell recently and have read a few of his essays. The more I read the more I like him, so I’m sure I’ll end up reading Animal Farm.

  • penny

    Anything written by Epictitus, Marcus A.,
    or Seneca.

    Buddha’s Lotus Sutra

    The Uppanishads

    Anything written by Voltaire

    Anything written by William James

    Plato’s Dialogs

    Faust by Goethe and also ” The Sorrows of Young Werther”

    “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Richard Burton

    The Federalist Papers

    The Social Contract

    The Autobiography of B. Cellini

    Anything written by Tom Paine

    Mimesis

    The Way by Lao Tzu

    William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

    Critique of Pure Reason by Kant

    Anything by Charles Darwin

    Anything by Franz Kafka

    Rhetoric by Isocrates

    That Aside, I would have been saved lots of pain ( gifted kid stuff) if I had been exposed to Theophilus North by Thornton
    Wilder!

  • penny

    Dear John,
    If you are reading Orwell, also check out
    Aldous Huxley–whose essays are brillant. Also, his book “Brave New World” which is similar to 1984 in many ways.
    Penny

  • gita

    Great stuff. There is a new book out about how to home-school your child in the classical tradition, The Well -Trained Mind. (My toolbar has disappered.) The book contains an extensive reading list, which might come in handy for those of us who have gaps in our reading-repertoire.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Gita,

    That’s an interesting concept. I actually flipped through something similar at B&N a few months ago. It was called “A Curriculum for Life Long Reading”.

    After I realized how little great literature I was exposed to in school I felt a bit deprived. At least I have a lifetime of great reading to look forward to.

  • Mazid

    I would like to make some recommendations as well: anything written by Alexander Dumas (but The Count of Monte Cristo in particular), and The Portrait of Dorian Grey and The Young King by Oscar Wilde (not to mention just about anything else he wrote).

  • bob dylan

    I’m cheating a bit with a “modern classic” but “Godel, Escher and Bach by Douglas Hofstader” (1978) blows away anyone who reads it.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/ John Wesley

    I’ve heard a lot about Hofstader, but never read any of his work. I’ll have to check that out.

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  • Froedrick Whitekopf

    I recommend “Man With A Maid”.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Thanks for the recommendation, Froedrick. I just Googled it. Definitely looks interesting.

  • http://- RabidBibliophile

    I’ve got to jump in here. There’s a neo-classic on *how to approach the classics* called ‘How to Read a Book’ by Mortimer J. Adler. He was involved in the Great Books project as well, and both sprang from his work on one of the finest encyclopedias ever produced. Dip your toes in and TRULY get a feel for how elegant and effective these books can be by reading :

    ‘The Republic’ – Plato
    ‘Ethics’ – Plato
    “Experience” (a single essay, not a book title) – R W Emerson
    ‘The Law’ – Frederic Bastiat
    ‘The Prince’ – Machiavelli.

    I assigned these to my high school sophomore son (age 14) and he *devoured* them, going on independently to snag my copy of ‘The Clouds,’ by Aristophanes, and then the little blighter read my copy of ‘Oedipus Rex’ *before* I got to it! So much for the ‘Family Book Discussion’ plans! (G)

    The thing that helped spur his interest in the classics might help adults a little leery of the idea of ‘wading through’ books they may only know by title or vague description– I paired something classic with something modern. EG, for his reading of Machiavelli, he wrote a pro/con comparison of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition from the Star Trek “mythos”. I offered a trio of fun fiction with Mary W. Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ along with Asimov’s ‘Bicentennial Man’ and a Cyberpunk manga a friend lent him.

    The local library may have a copy of “The Lifetime Reading Plan”, which includes about two hundred of the most notable books, mostly fiction, along with a very brief summary meant to incite interest. Use that to pair off your reading, or simply make a ‘wish list’ for Bartleby.com, or E-Gutenberg, or the University of Virginia’s e-text library (which has a drool-worthy collection for any American History buff).

    Look for tips on speed reading and retention – Several univeristy sites offer very good advice and even .pdf printouts for study tips. I practice my speed reading on the daily paper and my electronic news, thus saving enough time to spend an hour after dinner *reading* for pleasure. Believe you me, the speed reading *does* create a marked increase in the casual reading rate!

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Thanks for the recommendations, RabidBiblioPhile. I’ve been meaning to get back to reading Plato. Have you ever heard of Mark Edmundson’s book “Why Read?”

  • http://- RabidBibliophile

    You’re a true friend, bringing the perfect gift– the title of a new BOOK! (G)

    It’s now on my list of things to acquire for the next month’s reading!

  • Bruce Dearborn Walker

    If you read Polybius, you will understand everything about modern politics and war, especially what is happening with China. Caesar’s Gallic Commentaries are a great read, but read it with the understanding that it is propaganda by the man who would demolish the underpinnings of the Roman republic. Machiavelli is important for politics and modern advertising, and understanding big business and the military-industrial complex.

    Livy’s Lives of the Ancient Greeks and Romans is a big bag of potato chips, and an understanding of post modernist reading adds another layer to it’s wisdom.

    These are all on line, in multiple translations.

  • Nathan

    John,
    I love that your first suggestion was Emerson. I read alot of classics. In fact that is almost all I read, and I recommend” The Essential Writings” by Emerson to anyone that asks. In fact that book rarely goes back on the shelf, it is sitting two feet from me. I do some long endurance race’s on my bike and sometimes it’s hard to keep motivated for the many hours of training. When someone ask how I train for a 24 hour solo race I tell them Emerson is my motivational coach. Because endurance is very mental as well as physical. I need somthing to accupy my mind as I ride.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Nathan,

    I couldn’t agree more about Emerson. If I could have the abilities of any writer it would be him. His power to motivate and inspire is amazing and I always pick up something new when I reread one his essays.

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  • Ken

    Not too old, not too modern, but take a look at the short, pithy books of Eric Hoffer, a longshoreman/social critic. Particularly, The True Believer will give you insight into the U.S. Christian conservative movement as well as the Muslim fundamentalists.

  • Lisa

    Pride & Prejudice – Jane Austen
    Sense & Sensibility – Jane Austen
    The Warden – Anthony Trollope
    Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
    The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
    The Lord of the Rings – Tolkien
    Moby Dick – Herman Melville (Yes, it is long, but as it encompasses the vastness of the sea, and the depths of evil, the length is important – sort of along the lines of MacLuhan’s “the medium is the message”)

    Anyway… hope someone enjoys these.

  • Gerard

    Have a look at http://thegreatbookslist.com
    Plenty of inspiration there..

  • Robert

    if you don’t have time to read why not listen to audio books , a great site is librivox.org it has most of the necessary classical writing whether drama or philosophical treatise and even Einstein’s book on relativity and did i also mentioned that they have a almost of of Emerson’s writing on tape, and for the Thomas Paine, Jules Verne, Daniel Defoe and Jane Austen fans out there they have what you are looking for, and for true classicist like my self There is Aesop, Plato and his illustrious pupil whose name i do not need to mention (Aristotle, it slip ) and several others form the Greek and Roman period , No Adam Smith for all the economics lovers out there, the book is 1275 pages long that would take a day to record,I hope have being of help

  • Robert

    did i forget to mention all of Leo Tolstoy works which is a must read for any one who considers him self an intellectual, for those whose love Kant Nietzsche and Schopenhauers (just studies on pessimism is available in English) will be right at home, they also have few non english recordings , oh yes and and I am not an old man, I have yet to see my second decade on this earth

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Robert,

    Those are some my favorites too. It’s great to see someone else from my generation who enjoys the classics.

  • nathan post

    Robert,
    thanks for the website recommendation. I have been looking for a good website for audio books I will check it latter today. nate

  • ryan

    anyways,reading is important because we can know all thnings happen in the world,it is a lso one-way of getting knowledge and information.

  • ryan

    if you don’t have time to read why not listen to audio books , a great site is librivox.org it has most of the necessary classical writing whether drama or philosophical treatise and even Einstein’s book on relativity and did i also mentioned that they have a almost of of Emerson’s writing on tape, and for the Thomas Paine, Jules Verne, Daniel Defoe and Jane Austen fans out there they have what you are looking for, and for true classicist like my self There is Aesop, Plato and his illustrious pupil whose name i do not need to mention (Aristotle, it slip ) and several others form the Greek and Roman period , No Adam Smith for all the economics lovers out there, the book is 1275 pages long that would take a day to record,I hope have being of help

  • Luke

    I would recommend Don Quixote as an excellent read. Also anything by James Joyce or Jerome K. Jerome would be well worth reading.

  • Martin

    I may also recommend a couple of books from Peter Watson: “Ideas” and “The Modern Mind”, they are both compilations of Human Mind achievements. “Ideas” starts from the development of writing…

  • Martin

    Since I am a native Spanish speaker, I’ll recommend the following authors:
    - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    - Mario Vargas Llosa
    - Jorge Luis Borges
    - Ernesto Sabato
    - Julio Cortazar

  • http://www.joellesteele.com Joelle

    I have read most of the books and authors mentioned in this forum so far. I started reading them when I was very ill and bed-ridden off and on for several years. I felt that I had all this time and wanted to put it to good use and, believe me, TV gets very boring very quickly when it is your only entertainment. I went to UCLA and got copies of the syllabus for all the literature and philosophy classes, then expanded that list as I read. The reading I did during that time opened my eyes and changed my life in more ways than I could ever begin to adequately describe. If more people read even a fraction of these books, the world would be a very different place indeed.

  • Veda

    Some of the Books to be read

    Aesoph’s Fables.
    Proverbs – religious or secular
    Panchtantra – Animal Moral Stories – Indian

  • Vincent

    Some very nice old authors who have enriched my life are listed below. My sincere apologies for leaving out many excellent writers whom I have not read:

    Classical Literature
    Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plutarch

    More Recent Literature
    Shakespeare, Goethe, Dickens, Twain, Kipling

    Philosophy
    Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein

    Old Mathematical Classics:
    Euclid, Archimedes, Newton, Gauss, Riemann

  • http://www.bharat.com bharat

    Great stuff. There is a new book out about how to home-school your child in the classical tradition, The Well -Trained Mind. (My toolbar has disappered.) The book contains an extensive reading list, which might come in handy for those of us who have gaps in our reading-repertoire.

  • http://www.bharat.com bharat

    Great stuff. There is a new book out about how to home-school your child in the classical tradition, The Well -Trained Mind. (My toolbar has disappered.) The book contains an extensive reading list, which might come in handy for those of us who have gaps in our reading-repertoire.Everything has its particular place. Old books cannot give you the weather forecast or teach you to write a javascript. But what they will teach you is how to live. They will teach you what it means to be human. They will give you a firm place to stand against the assault of constant change. The wisdom of the greatest human minds passed down through centuries is our most reliable asset.

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  • BJ John

    I read older books ALL the time. In fact, I find the VAST majority of most books published in the United States since 1975 a waste of TIME and MONEY (except for FACTS ON FILE books, some Reader’s Digests books, Joseph Kane’s books, etc.). In fact, I found that after reading a lot of older non-fiction books, I feel like TV (even educational shows such as NOVA) is a WASTE of time because they contain false information due to lack of research skills!

  • Rakesh Zaveri

    The Magic of Believing by CLAUDE BRISTOL and As A Man Thinketh by James Allen are two books I could read on forever!!!

  • http://customizedfatlossreview.com/ Jack Leak

    classics
    are the best! They always give a lot of knowledge because they teach us about the rich history during those times.

    - Jack Leak
    Customized Fat Loss Review

  • Sophs2

    Can you suggest some of your favourite classics?

  • Sophs2

    Can you suggest some of your favourite classics?

  • http://bloggingoblin.com Goblin

    Walden by Henry David Thoreau. He is a bit of an extremist but has some very intriguing perspectives and thought-provoking ideas about life, the world, and society. He even offers an opposing view to that of this article:  ”Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were.”

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  • Cfinal

    Anyone have a tentative list a jump start so to speak, for a uni student? Salamat 

  • http://twitter.com/Church_Johnson Church Johnson

    Hello, 

    I have read a couple of your links about building your mindset and your writing skills. I have a question and a favor to ask whom ever that choose to answer. Please if anyone can provide a list of Classic books for me to read. Plus what do you mean by Classic books? I would like to know so I can build from there. Thank you for reading this and also thank you for the helpful tips. 

    • luke

      The Prince – Machiavelli
      The Art of War – Sun-Tzu
      The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins

      Should get you started.

      • Church_Johnson

        Thank you so much

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  • http://twitter.com/Church_Johnson Church Johnson

    Hello, 

    I have read a couple of your links about building your mindset and your writing skills. I have a question and a favor to ask whom ever that choose to answer. Please if anyone can provide a list of Classic books for me to read. Plus what do you mean by Classic books? I would like to know so I can build from there. Thank you for reading this and also thank you for the helpful tips. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/dieulinh.kute.7 Dieu Linh Erisly

    This reading is extremely useful for me. I think that  I recognize myself ang know how to change my thought…

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