7 Books I’ve Always Wanted to Tackle

books on wooden shelves inside library
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There are certain books* that intrigue me as particular challenges. These are books that I’ve always wanted to tackle, but haven’t yet summoned the courage to do so. None of these books are particularly short. So there is a big commitment involved for each of them. Then, too, there are not particularly easy, which means streching my comprehension to the limits, which, while mind-expanding, can be exhausting. Still, these are books I definitely want to tackle at some point in the future. I own several of them already, and in at least one case, the book has been sitting on my shelves for more than twenty years.

Here are some of the books that I’ve always wanted to tackle.

1. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

Over the year I’ve read excepts from Gibbon’s masterpiece. I’ve seen it quoted in countless places. But I’ve always wanted to read it myself. This was a favorite of, among others, John Adams and Isaac Asimov. I think it would be particularly enlightening in our current political climate. I suspect there are many lessons to take from these volumes. It is a heady and lengthy undertaking. I have the Everyman’s Library edition and also the audio book edition from Audible (which is something like 120 hours!)

2. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould

I always enjoyed Stephen Jay Gould’s essays, and I especially like his book Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville which was all about baseball. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory was his magnum opus. I remember getting it sometime before August 2002, because I remember sitting on my deck in Studio City, California with this book in my lap attempting to read the first chapter.

The book defeated me then, but every time I see it on my shelf, it calls to me. For whatever reason, I am particularly attracted to long books, and this one, at nearly 1,400 pages may well tip the scales at the longest book I’ve ever attempted. It is also heady stuff, but I’ve always found Gould’s writing to be both clear and fascinating.

3. The Ants by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson

I’ve read and enjoyed 4 of Edward O. Wilson’s books, and I recently finished reading Richard Rhodes’ biography of Wilson, Scientist: E. O. Wilson, A Life in Nature. His writing about ants fascinates me. The Ants was one of the books for which Wilson won a Pulitzer prize (the other was On Human Nature). I got this book a couple of years ago, started reading it, and then realized I was biting off more than I could chew at the time. But I still want to go back to it.

4. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Schirer

Here is another long book that I’ve always wanted to tackle. I’ve read a lot about the Second World War, but very little of it has been about what happened inside Germany to bring the war about. Schirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich attempts to tell this story and it is a book that I’ve wanted to tackle for a long time now.

5. Greater Gotham by Mike Wallace

Back in 2006, I read Gotham by Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows. It was a fascinating history of New York City from its inception as a Dutch colony to it becoming a unified city in 1898. It was also a lengthy book, and is, of this writing, the longest book I’ve ever read.

Years later, Wallace wrote a second volume, Greater Gotham, almost equal in length to the first, but instead of covering several centuries, it covers barely 20 years, the history of New York City from 1898 to 1919. Having read and enjoyed the first book, I have no choice but to tackle this second volume at some point. Already, I wonder if a third volume is in the works.

6. A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee

Toynbee was a phenomenon in his time. I’m not sure if his theory of history still holds up today or not, but I understand that these were popular and fascinating books at the time they were published. I’ve acquired the first four volumes in the series. I believe there are a dozen in total.

7. Science and Civilization in China by Jospeh Needham

I’d never heard of Jospeh Needham until reading Simon Winchester’s book The Man Who Loved China–a book that I’ve read twice now. I’m fascinated by Chinese history because I know so little about it, but what really attracted me to this series (besides its title words “science” and “civilization”) is Needham himself. I’m amazed by people who can spend their entire careers on a diving deeply into a single subject. It’s what fascinated me, in part, about Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization and Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography Jefferson and His Times. There are many volumes to Needham’s series and they are hard to come by, but I’ve managed to acquire four of them, which is enough to get me started, once I’m ready.

Are there books that you’ve always wanted to tackle? Let me hear about them in the comments.

Written on January 16, 2022.

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  1. Hi, Jamie. I’m intrigued, amazed by the far reaching range of your interests. War and Peace is on my list of important reads among others but the volume what comes to mind when challenged by your log entry is Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. Where once I was curious if intimidated, I now just have too many competing interests for my time. Still, I’d like to come full circle with my awareness of Hofstadter’s volume. Thanks for inclining me to reconsider.

    1. Michael, last spring, after reading a bunch of computing history books, many of which referenced GEB, I tried reading Gödel, Escher, Bach while on spring break. That is a challenging read–fascinating but mentally challenging. I ended up giving up on it, but I’ll come back to it at some point, I’m sure. Each time I pass that particular bookshelf, and see the book staring at me, I feel guilty.

  2. Several of these books are also on my “perhaps I’ll read them” shelves. They have survived several book purges so it may happen yet. I will add both “Gotham” and “Greater Gotham” to my list. Thank you.


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