Because Learning Is Life

A friend of mine sent me the following note in my e-mail this morning:

From Jim Woosley

In an article titled “An Education in 404 Pages,” by James Baccus, Vanderbilt Magazine, Spring 2003 issue, page 11, the author cites the following as the most significant recommended reading for someone interested in a liberal education but without the time to read the works in full.

1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance.”
2. Alexis de Tocqueville, “The Principle of Interest Rightly Understood,” from Democracy in America.
3. Thycydides, “the Melian Dialogue,” from the History of the Peloponnesian War.
4. James Madison, Federalist 10 and 51.
5. Adam Smith, “On the Division of Labor,” from The Wealth of Nations
6. Voltaire, Letter 15, “On the System of Gravitation.”
7. Richard Feynman, “The Uncertainty of Science,” from The Meaning of It All.
8. Plato, “The Cave,” from The Republic.
9. Michel de Montaigne, “Of Cannibals,” from The Essays.
10. John Stuart Mill, “Of the Libety of Thought and Discussion,” from On Liberty.
11. Karl Popper, Chapter 10, The Open Society and Its Enemies
12. Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor,” from The Brothers Kaqramazov.
13. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail.
14. Virginia Woolf, Chapter 6, A Room of One’s Own.
15. Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address.”
16. Suetonius, “Agustus, Afterward Deified,” from The Twelve Caesars.
17. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”
18. Edmon Burke, “Lette rot he Sheriffs of Bristol.”
19. Samuel Johnson, Number 21, The Rambler.
20. Immaual Kant, “On Perpetual Peace.”
21. Henry David Thoreau, “On Seeing,” from his Journal.
22. Plutarch, “On Contentment.”
23. Soren Kierkegaard, “The Story of Abraham,” from Fear and Trembling.
24. William Hazelitt, “On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth.”

As you may or may not know, I am primarily self-educated, and entirely self-educated in my current professional field. (I have an ADN, and served as a registered nurse for ten years, but while that has been a useful background for writing, I don’t think that anyone would claim it as a writing background.) My education as a writer consists of being a reader, having a wonderful English teacher my last two years of high school, and applying myself to the task of learning to write as if my life depended on it.

So. Of the above-listed works, I own a couple, have read a couple more, and of the rest am vastly ignorant.

But I felt challenged. I’m going to hit The Gutenberg Project today to see which of these I can locate in free e-book format, and I’m going to read them. I’ll try used bookstores following that, and regular bookstores as my last resort (I’d like to keep this educational venture as close to free as possible.)

I figure a writer can never know enough, and this list looked like a valuable short course.

And FWIW, the ones I own are the Emerson and the Feynman. The ones I have previously read are the selections from Plato, Woolf, Lincoln, Orwell, and Thoreau, as part of whole works where applicable.

To the rest, I could at least say I had heard of the works and the authors in some cases, but I drew a complete blank on Mill, Popper, Suetonius, and Hazelitt.

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9 responses to “Because Learning Is Life”

  1. Holly Avatar

    As a librarian, I’m quite surprised you didn’t include the public library as a place to look for these books. Any public library will have most if not all of these works.

    I don’t have a car and haven’t for several years now, and there isn’t a library within walking distance for me, so the library is out as a source of information. Even if I could there to borrow the books, I’d still have to read the books promptly and get them back in a timely fashion, and with my schedule of writing and Matt’s work schedule, I can’t count on being able to do that that.

  2. Kirsten Avatar

    As a librarian, I’m quite surprised you didn’t include the public library as a place to look for these books. Any public library will have most if not all of these works.

  3. pdokj Avatar

    Actually, when I first saw this list, I did go out and start compiling the works that were in the public domain (I have a slight advantage there, as I’m in Canada, which is a author death+50 yrs copyright regime).

    The list is almost complete, and is at

  4. Ter Avatar

    and possibly Kierkegaard, Hazelitt, Popper or Feynman might still be in copyright.

    Kierkegaard might be in copyright depending on the translation. Here’s a 1941 translation on the Net. See "Prelude 10".

  5. Kay Avatar

    It appears to have been scanned in and not perfectly corrected, but you can find Dr. MLK, Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail at:

    The Melian Debates, a/k/a the Melian dialog made a powerful impression on me. We studied it in a freshman seminar among other things in my first year in college.

    At a quick glance, there is very little of the list that will be other than public domain. Besides the speech I’ve just given you the link to, Orwell, perhaps, and possibly Kierkegaard, Hazelitt, Popper or Feynman might still be in copyright.

  6. John Prideaux Avatar
    John Prideaux

    You might also try The Online Books Page, which includes Project Gutenberg in its search database.

  7. Jim Woosley Avatar
    Jim Woosley

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Holly.

    I had heard of almost every author on the list (though could not, for example, have put Seutonius in context as Ter did, despite having read I, Claudius). But I don’t think I’ve read any of them — excepting the Gettysburg Address, of course — except as an assignment in a literature or history class and not remembered as such. Not even the Feynman, since I’ve not read that particular book of his, though I’ve undoubtedly run across similar sentiments in his other works.

    I had already added The Federalist (and the Anti-Federalist) and The Republic to my reading list as background for the infamous "novel I’ve been working on for the last two decades). Have them with me in the car, in fact. (Hard to read from there, of course).

    I suspect that a lot of them are available for free downloading. You might check and for free copies of most. I got the Republic and Federalist at Barnes and Noble on markdown tables for under $10 each in the past two weeks, and many of the others are undoubtedly languishing at public libraries.

  8. PuristLove Avatar

    I don’t know how many of these are public domain, but it would be interesting to compile a website that had as much of it all together as possible.

  9. Ter Avatar

    The Roman historian Suetonius is the source for Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. While prepping for archaeology courses, I read a lot of history written near the time it occurred(like Machiavelli and Suetonius).

    Suetonius is an interesting source, because he focuses on the personalities of history. For writers (and readers!) drawn to character driven fiction, this approach to history explains the why through the who.

    Casanova is a terrific source for what life may have been like in the eighteenth century. His memoirs are so long that a range of tastes, fashions, and popular culture crops up. Since he also wrote speculative fiction and finished his days as a librarian (while writing the memoirs) his epic autobiography gives me a portrait of a well-read man from the past. And because his memoir is soooo long, you can drop in anywhere and pick up an adventure for the length of a few chapters.

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