Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Lifetime Reading Plan

The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman (1966) is a list of classics with descriptions of each.  I read it several years ago and from it, selected a short list of books that I felt I ought to read in order to be able to consider myself well-read.  Of the 130-odd books that Fadiman recommended, these are the ones I added to my master list.

Herodotus--The Histories
Thucydides--The History of the Peloponnesian War
Marcus Aurelius--Meditations
D.H. Laurence--Sons and Lovers; Women in Love
Henry James--The Ambassadors
William Faulkner--The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying; Light in August; Absalom! Absalom!; The Hamlet; The Town; The Mansion
Gogol--Dead Souls
Dostoyevsky--Crime and Punishment; The Brothers Karamazov
Tolstoy--War and Peace
Yeats--The Autobiography
James Boswell--The Life of Samuel Johnson
Henry Adams--The Education of Henry Adams

I wrote blog posts about several of these, and last week I finished the last one on the list, The Education of Henry Adams.

Well hello

Henry Adams was born in 1838, and was the great-grandson of President John Adams. The Education is a memoir of sorts, focused solely on life-experience as education.  It starts out charmingly.  Adams' three year old self assumed (adorably) that because his grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents, that he would become one too.  There follows a story of how his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, marched him to school on a day that he refused to go. Later, he attended Harvard and was private secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, during his stint as minister to the Court of St. James during the American Civil War.  Here it gets murky and remains so for the rest of the book.  I really struggled and I'm not sure if I gained anything for the struggle.  For sure, I didn't comprehend most of what I read, and then, when I learned that Adams was a rabid anti-semite, I used that fact to justify skimming what I didn't want to read.

Adams claimed he was an 18th century man, living in the 19th century world.  He wrote The Education at the end of his life and from what I could glean from it, saw that he had mostly failed to learn from the educational opportunities that life presented to him.  I did like the final words of the last chapter:

Education had ended for all three, [Adams and two of his contemporaries, John Hay and Clarence King] and only beyond some remoter horizon could its values be fixed or renewed. Perhaps some day- say 1938, their centenary- they might be allowed to return together for a holiday, to see the mistakes of their own lives made clear in the light of the mistakes of their successors; and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.

Alas, we still do not have a world which those of a sensitive and timid nature can regard without a shudder.  If anything, things are worse than ever for those of us (and I definitely include myself in this group) who are of a sensitive and timid nature.

So that's another mini-reading project done.  Do I feel more well-read for having finished this list?  Perhaps.  These books were difficult and I  mostly felt like a failure for not comprehending them fully.  I think they have enriched my life in subtle ways that will continue to unfold.  For example, I was able to better appreciate the Yeats' exhibits at the Dublin Writers' Museum because I'd read his Autobiography; I still sometimes have a brief, inner laugh at the punchline of As I Lay Dying; I can look at a copy of Crime and Punishment and say, "Yeah, I've read that."


  1. Well done. Congratulations on finishing.

  2. I'm impressed! I'm not good at making myself read things I don't enjoy. I tend to throw the books across the room :-) I read the first few things on your list in a Great Books class in college that focused on early classical lit --while I can't say I really enjoyed reading the Histories, or about the Peloponnesian War, I had such a fantastic teacher (and we also read many of the comedies and tragedies) that I got a lot out of them.

    I had to read As I Lay Dying in high school. I hated it so much, I would never read another thing by Faulkner :-)

  3. Congratulations! As I Lay Dying is the only Faulkner I've read (ages ago and with the help of Sparknotes!), but I'm considering trying Light in August one of these days. Crime and Punishment is one of those novels I feel like I *should* read... even downloaded a copy of the new P&V translation to my kindle. We'll see how long it takes to get to it ;-)

  4. You are incredible. Someday I'd like to read The Histories. I've read about half of your list.
    Seems like the third-generation Adams suffered that third-generation curse, no?

  5. You pick impressive things to read. Bravo for getting through "Educ of H. Adams"! I have read the Russian authors. I have tried to read Faulkner, which my mother (a well-read woman) raves about, but couldn't make it through. Likewise for D.H. Lawrence. Maybe I should try Herodotus.