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During my growing up years, Uncle John's books took up considerable space in my parents' home: on bookshelves and under crawlspaces. He had been a book collector since his youth, so when he went to Nigeria, West Africa for five years my parents agreed to store his books as well as an assemblage of furniture he had accumulated from auction sales. It has become part of my family mythology that when all these books were boxed up and moved to Uncle John's permanent house, the structure itself lifted as if with relief.
At the age of 13 I considered it a privilege to spend a week at Uncle John's spacious Victorian house, which had one room designated as a library. However, even the library could not hold all the books he owned. Shelves spanned many of the walls on each floor. I remember my joy at starting and finishing a new book each day I was there. When Uncle John sent a box of his "discards" my way, it was like receiving a treasure.
One of those discarded books that came into my possession was written in 1962 by Abraham Lass; its title was How to Prepare for College. Its fifth chapter was called "What to Read," and my sister and I took to heart the lists of classics we should read during our four years of high school. The list for 9th grade alone contained 44 titles, including three Shakespeare plays and tomes by Charles Dickens, Jules Verne and Sir Walter Scott. As I scan those pages today, I can see the check marks we placed beside each book we had read. Alas, neither of us finished all of these books despite the fact that we both graduated from university about 20 years ago!
I have taken two lessons from this list of "What to Read":
1) Times have changed. In 1962, there was a higher standard for what made a person "educated." Attending college was an elite destination rather than the norm. Liberal arts education, where a scholar knew a wide range of subjects, was more common, but today's graduates are often so specialized in a technical subject. Sadly, they can complete a university program without having opened a work of literature.
2) Even though I kind of make fun of my past self for trying to read a list of books chosen by a single principal from Brooklyn, New York, it was good to be challenged in this way. While my own parents were literate and intelligent, they did not have a background in these works of literature. Without the list, I may not have been pushed to consider some of the great books of Western civilization, like Pilgrim's Progress and Les Miserables. Those who use best seller's lists and Oprah's book club to decide what's worth reading may well be missing out on worthwhile books from an earlier era.