The wisdom of old books

Full bookshelves

Nancy Pearl, NPR’s favorite librarian, talked last week about five older, but still in print books that she still enjoys reading. I was hard at work reorganizing my bookshelves, culling the fiction I have no intention to read or read again to make room for my growing collection of non-fiction, when I heard her recommendations. Naturally I began to work on my own list.

Since 2007 I have been reading only non-fiction, Nancy Pearl’s recommendations are all for works of fiction and she stressed that they were all in print, making her books easy to find if someone cared to do so. The only restrictions I am putting on my list is that to be eligible the book needs be sitting on my shelves today and I have to really feel that I benefited from reading it.

1: Nightmare in Manhattan (Fingerprint Books) by Thomas Walsh won the 1951 Edgar Award for the best mystery by a first time author. It has a good plot, the author’s writing style is current enough to still be readable unlike the winner from the year before (What a Body! by Alan Green) but what I really like about it is the way it captures the era. This is the book that proved to me that the past is a foreign country. Even just fifty years later it is a different world.

2: How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff, illustrated by Irving Geis was first published in 1954 and I don’t think it has been out of print since. I never thought of the 1950s as a time of cynicism but this book indicates otherwise. It is a short but powerful, and humorous, lesson on how not to be lied to with statistics. Do 9 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest? Was the survey done at a Proctor & Gamble stockholders meeting or a dental convention?

3:  What the Great Religions Believe by Joseph Gaer was written in 1970, long before religion became a political weapon. I was lucky enough to read it a few years later and feel this book helped insulate me from the political / media nonsense of the last few decades.

4: Historians’ Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought by David Hackett Fischer was the now well known historian’s first book. It is an amazing look at the logical failings of, then, recently published works by established scholars. Remember I mentioned this was Fischer’s first book? I am amazed at the critical thinking skill Fischer demonstrates while autopsying the work of literally dozens of established scholars but I am more overwhelmed by the cast-iron balls this newly minted PhD must have had to publicly air the logical shortcomings of dozens established professors who he would be working with for decades to come.

5:  Pioneer Life in Kentucky by Daniel Drake. Drake is the medical doctor / professor that I have been researching since I earned my BA in 2011. This is a collection of letters that he wrote to his children in the winter of 1845 while teaching at the Louisville Medical Institute. His daughters, grown and married, lived upriver in Cincinnati. In the letters he tells them of his early life in the Kentucky wilderness from about 1788 to 1799. His son assembled the letters into book form and published them after Dr. Drakes death. Dr. Horne, one of Drakes biographers, re-edited the book in the mid twentieth century and Albert Nathaniel Drake, perhaps a descendant of Dr. Drake, re-edited it again late last century. I read Horne’s version. Horne venerated Dr. Drake and although I don’t give him high marks for avoiding bias I believe he restored the Dr’s original words as much as he possibly could from the changes the less talented son made. You will not find a better description of pioneer life than in this book.

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1 Comment

Filed under Book review

One response to “The wisdom of old books

  1. Impressive selection! Particularly interested in that last one!

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