Rise of the Experts

The source of the Well-Read Man project book list

Rise of Experts

One thousand six hundred and seventy five. That’s the number of books I have in my list of candidates for the Well-Read Man project. I was somewhat surprised to find that there are that many books considered “great.” But The Experts told me that that was, indeed, the number.

The Experts are people I have never met, yet I am willing to accept their dictates. I don’t know their reading habit, their personal habits, or their criteria for making book selections; I don’t know much of anything about them. But because they are The Experts, I accept their word at face value. It’s all very American of me.

For your consideration, let me take this time to introduce you to The Experts, presented here in the order in which I encountered them.

  • Great Books of the Western World. Perhaps the most famous of all sets of significant works, the Great Books series first appeared in 1952. It was the work of Mortimer J. Adler and Robert Hutchins, big-wigs at the University of Chicago. The entire 60-volume second edition set is still available from the Encyclopedia Britannica store, although they just told me that it will be unavailable for a few weeks while they do a reprint.
  • The Harvard Classics. The yang for Chicago’s ying, the Harvard Classics provides a slightly smaller yet more ivy-league set of classic works than the Great Books. First compiled in 1910 as the “Five-Foot Shelf” of books (which is an endorsement all by itself) by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot, the set is no longer sold except in used bookstores.
  • 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. This recent book, edited by Peter Ackroyd, contains many of the classic works you might expect, plus a lot of new works. Nearly all of the selections are novels; nonfiction aficionados need not inquire.
  • The New Lifetime Reading Plan. This book, by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, provides brief introductions to more than 100 significant works, both classic and recent.
  • The College Board. As the administrators of the SAT, you thought they only brought misery for a few hours on a Saturday morning. But the pain can go on for years through their list of “101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers.”
  • St. John’s College. This private liberal arts college is certainly one of the most diverse in the world, as far as geography is concerned. Their two campuses are at opposite ends of the country, with one in Annapolis, Maryland, and the other in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Their curriculum is based on the required reading of great books.
  • The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. Another book of books, this one is crafted by Martin Seymour-Smith, an Oxford University-educated smart guy. Wikipedia has a list of his recommended books.
  • Good Reading. This book bills itself as “A Guide for Serious Readers.” And it fulfills this promise by having not one, not two, but three editors herding the recommendations of classic tomes.
  • The British Broadcasting Corporation. In 2003, the BBC produced a list of books as part of its “Big Read” project. The list of 200 books does include many classics, but the criteria for this list was popularity. It’s no surprise, then, that several of the Harry Potter volumes shows up, as do other recent mass-market books.

While there was a lot of overlap, many of the recommended books appeared in only one of these lists. If you’re looking for a good source of great books, don’t forget to consult The Experts. I do.


  1. I haven’t made the selections yet. I’ve started to review all of the candidates, and next week I’ll start trimming the list. I’ll post an article sometime next week about how I’m going to plow through this mountain.

  2. There are many additional lists of Great Books, but also consider Columbia College’s “Contemporary Civilizations” and “Literature Humanities” courses–the original classic great books core curriculum courses that influenced Adler. See David Denby’s “Great Books” (http://www.amazon.com/GREAT-BOOKS-David-Denby/dp/0684835339/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1305727030&sr=8-1) for his account of taking the course in the ’80s as an adult after taking the courses decades earlier as a college student. See: http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/sites/core/files/pages/CC_Syllabus_2010-11.doc for the current Contemporary Civilizations (politics and philosophy classics) reading list and see: http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/sites/core/files/pages/LH_Syllabus_-_2010-11.pdf for the current Literature Humanities (prose, poetry, drama classics) reading list.

    Just some ideas…


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here