Professor Rufus J Fears presents his top picks of Books That Have Made History: Books that Can Change your life in 37 30-minute lectures. The title is appropriate in that these are primarily historical works (only 3 from the 20th century). Prof Fears stipulates from the beginning that a great book, as he defines it, has 1) a theme, 2) noble language, 3) speaks across the ages, and in general, a great book “elevates your soul”.
Most of the lectures consist of a summary of the book in question, so that Prof Fears spends little time on analysis. In fact, on the question of themes, he generally choose one theme per book. Themes of god, fate or chaos, ultimate evil, duty and morality dominate the chosen books, which I often felt significantly simplified the story in question. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy is, for Prof Fears, ultimately about redemption and God’s true love. George Orwell’s 1984 is ultimately about duty to one’s government. For me, these books are so much more. Why must a book have only one enduring theme?
The second defining characteristic of a great book is beautiful language, but I can only recall in one case (Goethe’s Faust) in which Prof Fears actually reads an excerpt from the book, in this case demonstrating the power of the language in its original German. Lastly, the works in question must be relevant to today. Many of the beginning lectures consisted of religious books, and their summaries were tedious at best. However, I must acquiesce that these ancient works of religion still speak to many people today, despite being the source for so many disputes and wars throughout the ages.
For all my nitpicking, these series of lectures did achieve their original goal – to encourage the audience (me) to read these books for themselves. I have read or at least studied about half of the books presented, and I am now eager to pick up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Churchill’s 3 autobiographies, My Early Life, Painting as a Pastime, and WWII, among many others.
I would recommend this series of lectures for anyone interested in expanding their historical literature exposure, but these lectures serve only as introductions, and not substitutes for reading the real thing.