Isaac Asimov’s Reading List

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.

Library
Library (Photo credit: Stewart)

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:

A Place That Makes Me Happy: My Library
A Place That Makes Me Happy: My Library (Photo credit: lyzadanger)

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 😉

On Reading lists

Last week while I was in San Francisco, I was (ironically) nearly internet-less. In the end this was almost a self-imposed condition – it turns out my hotel had internet that they were charging me for without my knowledge – but knowing that, and being too focussed on my new job during the day to abuse the internet at work, I fell behind in my feeds. While catching up, I read Jamie’s post about his grandfather’s bookshelf, and how Jamie has used that as a springboard whenever he needs a break from his regular staple of books.

English: Hemingway posing for a dust jacket ph...This morning, I find myself reading an article about another luminary, Ernest Hemingway, and his list of books for young writers (along with a real gem of a suggestion for the writing process itself.

“The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time,” Hemingway said, tapping my arm with his finger. “Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work. The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along.”

Following this discussion was the list of books and stories that Hemingway felt every young writer should read. Lists like Hemingway and Rubin’s are interesting to me because they remind us that there is so much more out there. There are hundreds of books published each month in the SF/F/H genres, more than the average person could hope to read or keep up with.  Despite all that, its good to be reminded that there are books outside all of that can really open our horizons too.

Here’s Hemingway’s list:

  • “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane
  • “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Dubliners by James Joyce
  • The Red and the Black by Stendhal
  • Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
  • Hail and Farewell by George Moore
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Oxford Book of English Verse
  • The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson
  • The American by Henry James

via Ernest Hemingway’s reading list for a young writer, 1934 | Dangerous Minds.

I sometimes toy with the idea of taking a break from all of the SF/F/H I read and just spend a few months enjoying myself in the older tomes. These two lists seem like a nice place to start.