... because the best possible education you can get is by reading the classics. Since most books older than about 80 years are in the public domain, you can find most classic books online for free.
If you want to be truly great at what you do, whether it’s writing, speaking, art, IT, public service, business, whatever – then you should do what all the greats did. You should read the greats.
Gandhi, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Marie Curie, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin all got the lion’s share of their education by reading classic literature. That is by reading Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Aristotle, Plato, etc., who themselves got their most important education by reading still earlier classics.
Gandhi’s reading list included Aesop’s Fables, Arab Wisdom, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, Pilgrim’s Progress, Thomas Carlyle, Plato, and the Quran.
The Bronte sisters were not formally educated and were well-read in English literature including Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Byron, and Shelley.
Okay but what if you’re interested in learning something modern like computer programming? You probably won’t believe me, but here's my honest opinion as a self-taught professional programmer who's taken a couple university classes in programming. A university is not the best place to learn IT. If you take a university class on programming it will likely be short-lived information from a book that the professor – who’s maybe never worked in the IT industry – happens to like. If you browse Amazon for computer programming books you can read the reviews and choose the one that was actually more helpful to more real-world programmers. Usually you’ll pay less than $50 for the book and the only other investment your learning will require is time.
It’s better to get your education from the classics because they’re time tested, even if we’re talking about computers. I’m reading some computer stuff from the 70s right now (The Mythical Man-Month for example) that’s actually still applicable in 2016. These books are fantastically good. Forty years is basically 2000 years in IT time and people are still recommending them: they’re classic.
The older the better. No books have influenced my life more than Plato (400 B.C.) and the Tao-Te-Ching (550 B.C.). I was in my mid-20s by the time anyone suggested them to me. I wish I had read them sooner.
Wait, you’re thinking, but aren’t most of these so-called “classics” by white men?
If you want, stick to classics written by non-whites or non-men. China has over 2000 years of classic literature, and the old stuff has survived so many upheavals in Asian culture that they are as applicable to modern America as they are to modern China. (And they are quite applicable.)
India also has a tradition of philosophy stretching back thousands of years, completely unrelated to Western philosophy. But it’s time tested and certainly worth reading.
Read Maya Angelou, Agatha Christie, Emily Dickinson, Mary Shelley, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans’s pen name), Virginia Woolf, Ayn Rand, Margaret Mitchell, Edith Wharton.
Here’s a list of hundreds of female philosophers dating from about 700 BC. I’ve read some Anne Conway and Hannah Arendt, and several books by Lou Andreas-Salome, Nancy Cartwright, Mary Midgley, Annie Dillard, and Iris Murdoch, all great philosophical thinkers.
If you’re discouraged because it sounds like a lot of work, don’t worry. Reading old books can be hard work at first and it does take a lot of time. But if getting your body fit demands working out at least 15 minutes a day getting cultured isn’t any harder.
Start by setting aside 15 minutes a day. Read on the train or bus. If it’s too loud, put in earbuds and listen to music (without lyrics). Read while you’re eating meals. Read instead of watching Netflix. Read in bed just before going to sleep.
Once you start doing it, it will become enjoyable and relaxing. “I read one or two newspapers a week,” Jefferson said, “but with reluctance give even that time from Tacitus and Homer and so much agreeable reading.”
Successful writers typically read 50-100 books a year. Unless you also want to be a writer or philosopher that’s a lot. But I would recommend reading at least 12 books a year. That’s doable if you’re reading 15 minutes a day. After 4 years you will have read about 50 books, and if you make them count you can cover all the most important classics.
But where to start?
You can start the way I did, by Googling lists of classics. This is an okay way to do it but there are thousands of books out there listed as classics. You’re still left with the question of what to begin with.
I developed a system. If I kept hearing or seeing references to a certain book I’d write it down. Then if I heard even more about it or saw it at the top of someone’s list I’d star it. Some books would get a lot of stars and I would start with these.
If I had to go back and do it again I would add a few rules:
(1) Anything less than 50 years is not time-tested. Unless we’re talking about a computer book scratch it from the list. It’s okay to read contemporary works but you can’t be sure they’re educating you.
(2) Any book from a list written less than 50 years after it is not time-tested either. For example the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson has a diary entry listing several dozen classics he meant to read. The list starts out with books we’ve all heard of (Homer, Plato) but ends with obscure works that nobody reads anymore – these were contemporary works only a few years old when Emerson was writing. Safe to ignore.
(3) Look for lists written by people you admire most. These are books that have helped shape great minds.
In my previous post is my own list of 66 essential classics (update: it's now 102) based on these rules and the reading lists of people I’ve mentioned above.