My latest job in Special Collections included ‘tidying up’ the pre-1890 stacks. Thankless, and tedious, but I actually didn’t mind much because I saw it as an opportunity to acquaint myself with the stacks. Starting first with philosophy and religion in the A’s, I had fun looking at all the titles and bindings. A Book of Beginnings is one of my favorites. When I reached the biographies, I had to chuckle, because on one hand there was The Lives of Twelve Good Men and directly opposite it across the aisle was Twelve Bad Men. I was also struck by the great sense of the present the authors of these books had. Mostly published in the 19th century, these books had grand titles such as The Papacy in the Modern Age, or The Age We Live In (Vols 1 and 2), and so on and so forth. Histories of the 19th century published with yet 20 years to go! Now that we’ve passed the 2000 mark, I wonder if we have a different view of how to title things: date specific, and more aware that in ten, if not less, years this history book will be out of date and need to be rewritten. A longer eye toward the future, perhaps, without drifting into science-fiction; 1984 has come and gone, and 2000 is nearly a decade ago.
Also, I would say that if anyone wants to understand Western civilization, they have got to read the Bible, just out of sheer volume of commentaries and books written about it. Just think of how many people over the past 2000 years have been writing about the Bible—longer, if we are to include Jewish scholars! For the Essential Western Reader, I would also include the works of Homer, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (perhaps I’m biased), Shakespeare, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. After the 17th-century my perception of What Is Important to Western Civilization/Literature is a little fuzzy, but those works are a good start.