Lesser Great Books

Essential works that don’t get the love

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Lesser Great Books

Although my list of around 1,700 candidate books was impressive, by which I mean daunting and scary, it left out some works that are still great, by which I mean impressive.

One such work is a technical paper by mathematician and computer science wonder boy Alan Turing. His 1937 paper, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” had a big German word in the title, but that was nothing compared to the big ideas contained within its pages. Turing’s seminal work described the process by which all modern computers run programs. Originally, algorithms had to be manually configured into a computing device, a process that involved vacuum tubes, wires, and eye of newt. Turing’s writings described an alternative method that allowed general-purpose hardware to perform simple numeric actions that, when combined in new and different ways, would allow robots to enslave mankind.

As for its impact on civilization, On Computable Numbers ranks right up there with Einstein’s general and special theories of relativity. But while Einstein’s work shows up on many “must read” lists, Turing just gets a big pile of Entscheidungsproblem.

Another surprising omission comes in the person of Titus Flavius Josephus, a historian who documented events from the first century AD. Although some of his statements concerning Jesus give both scholars and Christians many opportunities for arguments, his writings have been important to the study of Western origins. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a contemporary of Josephus, does appear on the list with his biographies of Roman emperors. Somehow, the word “fair” just doesn’t seem to describe it.

Also missing were writings by political leaders, with the notable exceptions of Mao Zedong (The Little Red Book), Marcus Aurelius (The Meditations), and some key American primary sources (such as the Declaration of Independence). The memoirs of American president Ulysses S. Grant sold over 300,000 copies in the late 1800s. Mark Twain was a key sponsor of the work, and modern biographers continue to read and research his commentaries on the Civil War years. Winston Churchill was another prolific writer that didn’t make the cut on any common list.

All of this exclusion points to one undeniable fact: Even if you do something great, don’t expect to be put on any special lists.

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