When culling a list of 1,700-plus books down to just fifty, there is bound to be an awful lot of rejection. Fortunately, most of the authors represented have long since passed on to their eternal reward, so I don’t need to feel guilty about it. Or do I?
One method I used to reduce the size of the list was to eliminate books I had already read. It turns out that there were about 75 books that would exit the contest by this method—yes! But what great books they were. Many of these selections, such as The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare’s tragic play Romeo and Juliet, entered my life through high school and college course work. Others, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or P. G. Wodehouse’s hilarious farce Thank You, Jeeves, joined my library for pure fun.
Despite Wodehouse’s playful use of the English language, it wasn’t surprising that I would need to eliminate his book from the final set of great works. Bertie Wooster, the half-hero of the story, is no Odysseus. But other important books that would normally be included at the top of the list were kicked out as repeat reads. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Homer’s Iliad were slashed. But perhaps the most difficult to excise was The Bible.
Yeah, I’ve read the Bible, even the boring X-begat-Y parts. Back in my youth, I was pretty good at faking a King James accent. The Bible has probably impacted more lives in history than any other book, and it belongs on the short list of important works. But I’m going to let it pass for The Well-Read Man project. One of the key goals of the project is to see how great books will change me. Knowing how the Bible has already brought change to my life in the past gives me hope that at least a few of these other books will bring some minimal positive impact as well.
Even without the Bible in the list, its influence will be a part of the project. So many of the remaining books include quotes from scripture, have scenes that are shaped or influenced by its words, or at the very least present characters identified as Christian or unchristian. In fact, if you had to create a list of great books that had an impact on at least ten percent of all other books in the world, the Bible might be the only tome on the list. It has made its mark, it’s proved its inclusion on great book lists. So as I said at the beginning, I need not feel any guilt for giving it the boot off of the list. If anything, it’s overrepresented. And while I’m a little sad to see so many good books depart from the final list, in this particular case, it’s as if it never left.