Of late, I’ve become somewhat fascinated with the reading lists of folks I find interesting. We have Roosevelt’s reading list, and Hemingway‘s, and sites like Art of Manliness have even begun to make this a feature (only two so far, but I’m sure they’ll post more). We’ve always had lists like the Harvard bookshelf and the ten foot bookshelf, purportedly collecting all of the books a person should read. Even over at TED they’ve compiled a list of recommendations from their guests.
So I was curious – was there such a list from Asimov? It’s no secret I venerate the man as an author. Prolific and knowledgeable, there is a succinctness to much of his writing that I appreciate. Of all the grand masters of Science Fiction, he is probably one of two that I hold in the highest regard, the other being the recently passed Ray Bradbury.
To be fair, as I recall (and I could be mistaken!) Asimov eschewed the reading list concept. As memory serves, he didn’t care for the idea of a single shelf of books being able to encapsulate everything you should read, preferring instead to explore and expand his horizons organically. And yet, there is the curiosity. What books did he read that helped influence the way he wrote? We know from his own autobiographies that he didn’t enjoy modern fiction (except for the mystery) and read primarily from pre-20th century writing.
To answer this question, I’ve looked in the following resources:
I realize that two sources do not a definitive list make, but oddly enough no one else has put together a list that I can find. The world abounds in reading lists of his work, reading order for his fiction, publication order, but seems to come short when it comes to the books that positively influenced him. I’ve put together the following list based on the books he mentions specifically in the above two sources, and from what we can infer because he in turn would write his own tomes on the subject. There were a few books that he specifically listed as having a negative impact, and I almost included them – after all, to know what someone didn’t like is as telling as what they did like – but in the end left them off because it goes against the nature of these lists. And so, the briefly put together list of recommended books from Isaac Asimov.
- Greek mythology
- The Illiad, by Homer – read as many times as he could check it out as a youth
- The Odyssey, Homer
- The Tempest, Shakespeare
- Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare
- Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare
- Henry IV, Shakespeare
- Hamlet, Shakespeare
- King Lear, Shakespeare
- The Three Musketeers, Dumas
- The Jealous Gods, Gertrude Atherton
- The Glory of the Purple, William Stearns Davis
- Hendrik van Loon’s book on history (no title given)
- Victor Duruy‘s history of the world (no title given)
- Alice in Wonderland
- Pickwick Papers, Dickens
- Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens
- The Bible
From his own publications, we can surmise he also enjoyed:
- Shakespeare in general
- Don Juan, Byron
- Gilbert and Sullivan
- Paradise Lost, Milton
- Sherlock Holmes
It is important to remember at this juncture that these are just the random titles he mentioned, mostly in chapter 8 of I, Asimov, and is not a comprehensive list. Still, it’s an interesting insight into the influences of a unarguably prolific writer.
Thanks to Jamie Rubin, who acted as expert in residence for me when I couldn’t think of where to look for one of the Asimov references in this post. Thanks, Jamie!
P.S. Yes, there’s a little extra bookshelf porn in this post. I wrote a post about books – I’m allowed a little dalliance every now and then 😉