The Project of a Thousand Books

Not my library, but it makes my point. Photo by Phil Falardeau
Not my library, but it makes my point. Photo by Phil Falardeau

“Life is short. Books are many. What is an honest reader to do?”

I know I am not alone in facing this dilemma. Each of us who loves books and reading them realizes that we will never read all of the books that beguile us from our shelves. I have chosen to ignore that truth for a long time, buying and shelving books as though I would live forever.

Looming andropause reminded me last year that my time on Earth is limited, and if actuaries know anything, I will never read the books on my shelves right now. So what to do?

My choice, I realized, is simple: continue to live in denial, reading whatever suits my momentary urges, or choose to read books that are not only worthy in some objective sense, but that are also meaningful to me. I have chosen the latter, and in so doing have introduced a discipline to my reading that begins with a list.

The Thousand Books Project, once a blog and now a part of this one, is the chronicle of my effort to survey the entire corpus of books published in the English language, identify the 1,000 of those books that are most meaningful to me, read them, explain why I wanted to read them, and, finally to describe what they taught me.

This project is more than a list: it is a process, a search for meaning and beauty through the written word, and the chronicle of that process.

Which brings me to why you you should care. More about that in my next post.

Before I finish, though, a dedication:

I dedicate the literary journey of the last third of my life to my late mother, Valeria Jane Overman Blacklidge Barlow Wolf, who spent most of the last sixty years of her life improving herself through books, and in so doing made autodidacts of her children.

I am a bibliophile today because of what she taught me in life, and I begin this project in salute to the lesson she taught me in her passing: the clock is ticking, so make every remaining minute – and every page – count.

Bringing A Thousand Books into the Chinafornia Wolf

A little over a year ago I began a blog I called “The Thousand Books Project,” chronicling the project I had set myself to read 1,000 meaningful books in the next thirty-odd years (presuming, of course, that the Almighty allows me to live that long.”

Last week I realized that I could not sustain it as an independent blog – I’m simply not yet reading that quickly.

So, with your permission and indulgence, I am folding that blog into this one as a section or column.

Let me know if this all gets too literary.

Reading: The Character of the General

Washington was a human being, and the cherry tree story was a myth. But behind the myths lies a man of profound character.

I am not sure I could or should emulate Washington in detail, but his character provides an outline, a rough template, that offers a lot to emulate.

The more time that passes since reading the book, though, the more I find that its examination of Washington, his life, and his character moves me. By bringing the General down from his marble pedestal, Ron Chernow has done us all a great service: he has shown us that greatness is less bestowed than it is found, less innate than it is built. It is a mantle that is not assumed: it is rather, conferred by others after long and careful evaluation.

And, perhaps most important, if the great are imperfect, then it is within the grasp of all who are imperfect to be great. The lesson Chernow teaches us, then, is that the Founding Fathers did more than democratize power: they democratized prestige, importance, and social standing, stealing it from the privileged, the noble-born, and the royal and setting it in the town square for anyone to earn.

Verily, we need to look no further than Washington’s forty-fourth successor to witness that there is a downside to the democratization of prestige. Yet one does not have to look for long to find among the heirs of George III evidence that hereditary monarchy is little better – and arguably worse – at selecting heads of state than our own system.

But if there is a failing in our system, it begins with us. In a democracy it is we who choose the great. Our failing is in holding the good men and women who would hold office to a standard even George Washington could not match, leaving us only with Potemkin heroes and abject scoundrels from which to choose our leaders.

Chernow’s lesson is, thus, most important when understood in this context. Do not demand or expect perfection from your leaders. Demand an expect only that they are good and trying to be better. Such was George Washington, and, I daresay, such was the lot of every man and woman who we today revere as Great Americans.

In re: Propaganda

If any single man took the practice of public relations and turned it into a valuable and respectable craft, all while warning us of the dark side, it was Edward Bernays. The pursuit of flackery has been much twisted and maligned in eighty years, suggesting that now is the time to return to the original text and draw what insights we may as to where things went wrong, and how we might steer the business into the online, interactive future.