Required reading…for everybody?

Maybe it’s my I-took-a-lot-of-English-classes Stockholm syndrome talking, but I’ve always liked required reading lists. I’ve heard the criticisms leveled against them, and while I don’t categorically disagree (I do, for instance, think there’s something to the idea that summer reading should be more about encouraging students to read than prescribing specific selections), I think required reading performs a valuable function by giving a group of people entering a classroom for the first time together a shared frame of reference. And I think we should adapt this concept to the world. The whole, wide, beautiful, crazy world.

Think about it. You can have absolutely nothing in common with someone, but if you have read the same books, you have something to talk about. Strangers strike up conversations on planes, in the crowded aisles of bookstores, and even online when they see someone reading a book they have read. They recognize a fellow traveler. They have a place to start. And that’s why I think we should have a universal required reading list, a Required Reading for Humanity project. We need a place to start. If we could construct for ourselves a list of books that are remarkable not for the statements they make but for the questions they ask and the modes of thought and inquiry they suggest, perhaps we could begin finding something like a common language. Perhaps we could begin answering the big questions together. Think of it as diplomacy by literature, global unity via the Socratic seminar.

This is idealistic, I know, but let’s put thoughts about logistics and translations and practical issues aside for a moment to consider it. I’ve read a handful of books that left me thinking The world would be a better place if everyone read this. That’s what I have in mind here–not religious texts, how-to manuals, or self-help guides, which lean to the prescriptive, but books that ask big questions, challenge us to think differently, and leave us changed. It doesn’t matter if they are fiction or nonfiction, only that they spur us forward.

Karl Marlantes’s What It Is Like To Go To War is on my list, as are Fahrenheit 451 and bell hooks’s From Margin to Center. Though they have little in common, these books all forced me to contemplate how I live in the world and what kind of world I want to live in. While I wouldn’t dream of expecting everyone in the world to agree about the answers to the questions they raise, I certainly would like to have the conversations. I believe that doing so would make us better; not whole or perfect, but better nonetheless. Right now, better sounds pretty darn good to me. So let’s imagine that the world can somehow get its sh*t together enough to agree to create a universal reading list. What would you put on it?


Rebecca Joines Schinsky writes about books, the publishing industry, and the reading life at  The Book Lady’s Blog. Follow her on Twitter: @bookladysblog.

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