Having observed that the majority of the books on composer Brian Eno’s top 20 books for “rebuilding civilization”* were published in the 1970s and 1980s, when Eno was in his mid-twenties to late-thirties, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings wrote:
[This may be] the golden age within a lifetime, when we have transcended the know-it-all arrogance of youth, haven’t yet entered the know-it-old complacency of old age, and live with that wondrous combination of receptivity to new ideas and just enough not-yet-calcified intellectual foundation with which to integrate and contextualize them.
I’m in this purportedly “golden age” right now, and I’ve managed to make it this far in life without having read a single book on Eno’s rather obscure list.** Some of the selections look appealing; however, if any of these books ever got off of my already insurmountable-in-a-single-lifetime TBR pile, I wonder whether it would have much of an effect on me.
While I certainly like to think that my intellectual foundation hasn’t calcified, it remains the case that none of the new-to-me books I read each year — many of which I’ve really enjoyed and which have come highly recommended — has been meaningful in the way that the books I read in my youth were. As good as some of my recent reads have been, very few would end up on my post-apocalyptic bookshelf (it would be a different matter on my limitless e-reader–if such a device worked post-apocalypse– but that defeats the purpose of this exercise!). Plus, with three kids and a full-time job, this “golden age” doesn’t leave much time for reading.
At least for me, the “golden age” for reading was much earlier in my life. The “know-it-all arrogance” commonly associated with adolescence certainly doesn’t apply to everyone nor does it necessarily get in the way of fictional friends who offer new ways of seeing the world.
As author Lois Lowry observed about her readers:
[K]ids at that pivotal age, 12, 13 or 14, they’re still deeply affected by what they read, some are changed by what they read, books can change the way they feel about the world in general. I don’t think thats [sic] true of adults as much.
I noted in a previous post featuring Lowry’s quote, When Do Books Stop Changing Our Lives?, that research suggests we become more set in our ways after our early twenties. That comports with my own experience. The books that have meant the most to me are the ones I read in my preteen years through my early twenties. In my preteen years, for example, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird helped me develop my own sense of justice and inspired me (and many of my colleagues) to go to law school and eventually join the public interest legal profession.
The books I read during that time in my life are the ones that I re-read frequently and recommend the most enthusiastically to others. When creating a list of “must read” books, I wouldn’t dismiss the importance of books written for children and young adults. If they’re good enough to build young minds, they’re good enough to rebuild society.
*Compiled for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization (“We have named this collection The Manual for Civilization, and it will include the roughly 3000 books you would most want to rebuild civilization. While this may sound a little apocalyptic, we are not predicting any collapse of civilization. As it turns out, using this as an editing principle just seems to give us a very interesting collection of books.”)
**You can find Eno’s list in Popova’s post (linked in the first paragraph). I’d be curious to know how many of these books you’ve read. I’m not the only person who hasn’t read any of them.
***I don’t think Brian Eno worked on David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” but it’s the song that came to mind while writing this post. I apologize if it is now stuck in your head!